Duluth oral history project explores birth experiences of decades agoWhen Gina Temple-Rhodes asked 11 women, ages 89 to 101, what they remembered about giving birth decades earlier, their frank answers and the details they recalled astonished her.
By: John Lundy , Duluth News Tribune
When Gina Temple-Rhodes asked 11 women, ages 89 to 101, what they remembered about giving birth decades earlier, their frank answers and the details they recalled astonished her.
“Some of these (women), their children were now in their 70s, but they could tell me the details,” said Temple-Rhodes, an oral historian whose business, Cedar Story Services, is in the Dewitt-Seitz Building in Canal Park.
“I was really honored to hear their stories. And I learned a lot.”
Temple-Rhodes interviewed the women, and one of their husbands, in 2010-11 for phase one of what she calls the Duluth Birth Oral History Project. The things she learned raised new questions, which she’ll try to answer in a second phase beginning this summer.
Among the questions:
Temple-Rhodes, 40, started Cedar Story Services three years ago after working in public outreach and education for the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District. Her purpose is to record family and oral histories, although her work so far has been for nonprofits.
Filling the gaps
She’s the mother of two young children, and the idea of collecting oral histories about birth experiences started with a conversation with her own midwife, Temple-Rhodes said.
She also was inspired by the fact that she had never gotten the chance to ask her grandmother — who had nine children — about her birth stories, she said.
The project is managed by Birthing Ways-Doula Connection of Duluth with partial funding from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund via the Minnesota Historical Society. Transcripts of the interviews, along with audio and video files, are housed in the Northeast Minnesota Historical Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Pat Maus, the historical center’s archivist, said oral historians like Temple-Rhodes are helping fill in the gaps in our knowledge, especially about women.
“There are many scholars, men and women, who are trying to recover women’s history,” Maus said. “It’s a hard slog.”
Temple-Rhodes began her project by contacting assisted-living homes and attending a city of Duluth birthday party for 100-year-olds to find potential interviewees. The taped portions of the interviews, often conducted in nursing homes, were as short as 16 minutes and as long as 79 minutes.
It was, given the age of the interviewees, a battle against the clock. Helen Wright, who was 101 when interviewed, died less than two months later.
‘The ultimate authority’
All of the births described in the interviews were in hospitals, but the women weren’t necessarily well-prepared.
“They didn’t have any idea what to expect, in some cases,” Temple-Rhodes said. “Their sisters hadn’t told them anything, their mothers hadn’t told them, their doctors definitely hadn’t told them anything. So they just kind of showed up and did what they were told.”
In a couple of cases, that included being told to keep their legs together until the doctor arrived, she said.
“The doctor was the ultimate authority and you had to wait,” Temple-Rhodes said.
Most of the women were required to stay in the hospital 10 days after giving birth, she said. They were allowed to see the baby only once every three hours, for nursing. The husband often wouldn’t touch the baby until it was home.
One of the interview subjects was Katharine Coventry, who was the daughter-in-law of Dr. William A. Coventry. He was a prominent obstetrician-gynecologist who began practicing in Duluth in 1901 and later founded the Duluth Clinic.
The Potter method
Temple-Rhodes has learned that Coventry traveled to Europe in 1912 to learn the latest techniques, and she has found a medical journal article he wrote later advocating the Potter method. The method was named after a doctor named Irving Potter, who believed babies should be born feet-first.
The woman would be anesthetized with ether, and the doctor would physically reposition the baby.
“I’m not a doula or midwife at all, but I’ve talked to quite a few of them, and people just cringe when they hear that,” Temple-Rhodes said.
She wants to find out if Coventry pushed for more “medically modern” methods of delivering babies in Duluth, Temple-Rhodes said. She also wants to learn more about the history of midwives in Duluth. She knows there were some court cases involving midwives in the 1920s and ‘30s, including a manslaughter case.
Those are the sorts of things Temple-Rhodes will explore in the next phase of her project. It will involve a painstaking, detailed search of documents. After finishing a couple of nonrelated projects, she expects to work on birth history for a total of about 100 hours, completing this phase in September.
The next phase isn’t certain, but it could be a book, a video presentation or an interpretive project. She also will compile a detailed bibliography to give future researchers a start on their projects.
Anne Pilli, executive director of Birthing Ways-Doula Connection, said the project fits her organization’s mission. The one-on-one support doulas offer during the birthing process includes listening to the mothers’ stories.
“That’s where Gina’s piece fits in,” Pilli said. “I think it was just fabulous that she was able to capture these stories. It’s about as far back as we can go.”
Temple-Rhodes also was glad to be able to capture those stories.
“They always say that anytime someone dies, a library goes with them,” she said. “Maybe it’s not 100 percent accurate history always, but those (interviews) are where we can get those really personal stories and get that living color.”