This post is part of our #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group. In it Mary Fissell offers some reflections on chapter six of The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, on ‘Professions’. Mary is Professor in the History of Medicine at The John Hopkins University. You can access the book here.
Alice Clark’s chapter on Professions is startlingly prescient in its view of early modern women’s medical work. Many of the themes, sources, and topics she includes have become central to our discussions of early-modern medicine over the past few decades, but were not any part of the history of medicine when I started graduate school 35 years ago. Equally, when I re-read her chapter this time, I was struck by how deeply Clark’s own experiences shaped her account of women’s healing work.
Clark repeatedly uncovered women’s healing work that was largely ignored in the literature until very recently. In 1919, most English people would have thought that nursing started with Nightingale. Clark drew upon records from London’s great ancient hospitals to show us women working as nurses and matrons in them, although she wasn’t very flattering, noting that they were not “the most efficient type of women”. In the countryside, Clark found traces of nursing in local payments from parishes or charities for nursing the poor. She unearthed records of a female surgeon or two, and recognized that women performed many tasks as domestic healers, including making medicines and preserving recipes, a substantial topic in today’s literature. Such women, she noted, were trained informally in female lineages, rather than the formal education their brothers might have enjoyed. She describes the work of “searchers”, older women who inspected bodies for signs of the plague, a category of medical work almost completely ignored until the late 1990s.
Midwifery is Clark’s paramount example of the narrative of loss familiar from other chapters, as men gained access to increasingly formal scientific and medical training that became ever more valuable as knowledge progressed. But she couldn’t help noting that midwives’ skills probably didn’t worsen over the course of the seventeenth century. Here Clark was bucking the trend; as obstetricians created their specialty in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, they engaged in a fair amount of midwife-bashing about the old “Sairey Gamp” type of practitioner, but Clark saw a lot of good in the early modern midwife, noting that some were “of a high level of intelligence” and possessed “considerable skill”.
What struck me the most, however, was the ways in which Clark’s understanding of women and medicine was deeply tied up with her own personal history. Continue reading