Friday, February 20, 2015

Portland's First Maternity Hospital - 1921



Portland's first maternity hospital was built in 1921 in what is now a part of the Good Samaritan Hospital Campus.   It is a lovely, old brick building tucked beside vast modern structures.  I walk in and timidly ask the receptionist if babies were once born there.  She smalls and lets me know that every day someone comes in and says, "I was born here."

Mother and Baby on the outside walls of Wilcox Maternity Hospital
The maternity center was open from 1921 to 1979


It served as  a maternity hospital from 1921 until the maternity ward was moved into God Sam in 1979. At the time, hundreds of maternity or lying in hospitals were being built in the major cities of the United States.  It was a time of prosperity and upper middle class women were encouraged to choose doctors over "low class midwives."  

It was a time of prohibition, women's suffrage and the first Miss American Pageant.  30'50% of all babies were born in hospitals and Twighlight Sleep Societies were being formed to demand painless childbirth.  

Dr Joseph  Delee stated that birth was pathologic and that all women should be given anesthesia and episiotomies and the baby delivered with forceps.   Ether was also popular.  It was  a time when bottles were being introduced and babies were increasingly being fed canned milk.  Where women who did not want to breastfeed once depended on wet nurses, they could now turn to cows milk and bottles.

The Sheppard-Towert Infancy Protection Act was passed in 1921. It required states to develop a plan to lower and maternal and infant mortality.  The maternal mortality rate at the time was 600-700,00 per 100, 000 births.  

Meanwhile another 50-70% of the babies were bing born with midwives in their homes; the mothers walking around house and yard surrounded by family and friends; children and animals until the urge to push became strong and she laid down in time to let the midwife catch the baby.   I know this because this is how I chose to give birth and how I mostly deliver babies.

In 1920, Portland was a deeply segregated city.  There were laws that tried to keep people from Asia, the Pacific Islands and African Americans out of the state and the city.   It was difficult to find adequate housing, let alone a place to give birth.  I am looking for those midwives; the brave ones of the 1920's who caught babies in the midst of discrimination.  They are who I always wanted to  be.  I do not know what they did in an emergency or what tools they had but I know they knew how to touch a woman to ease her pain and whisper prayers to the newly born, no matter where they were born.

I walk out the back door of the old maternity center and see the Healing Garden where people sit and eat lunch or read.  I look up at he mother and baby on the wall and think of all the people coming back to say. "I was born here" and how sweet that must be.



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