Course Unit | Session 7: Black Lay Midwives: History, Impact and Regulation

Session 7: Black Lay Midwives: History, Impact and Regulation


The session will explore the history, training and public health response to lay midwifery. Using photographs, historical accounts and first-person narratives, students will explore the contributions of Black lay midwives in reducing infant and maternal mortality and helping build a public health and obstetrics care infrastructure.

Required Reading:

Gertrude J. Fraser. “Introduction,” pp. 25-42; and Chapter 5, “Midwives in the classroom,” pp. 107-124. In: African American Midwives in the South: Dialogues of Birth, Race and Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998)

Susan L. Smith. Chapter 5, “The public health work of poor rural women: black midwives in Mississippi.” In: Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired: Black Women’s Health Activism in America, 1890-1950, pp. 118-148.

Debra Anne Susie. Chapter 2, “Public health menace: the state’s view of the midwife.” In: In the Way of Our Grandmothers: A Cultural View of Twentieth-Century Midwifery in Florida (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press), pp. 34-49.

National Library of Medicine, “Images in the History of Medicine”; Midwives;jsessionid=EEBC7BEE2FA6520211884900E50C6C18?QuickSearchA=QuickSearchA&q=midwives&sort=Title%2CSubject_MeSH_Term%2CCreator_Person%2CCreator_Organization

Optional reading:

Mathis Mary Pugh. Chapter 6, “Toward an explanation of persisting lay midwifery in the twentieth century American South.” In: Lay Midwifery in the Twentieth Century American South: Public health Policy and Practice (PhD Dissertation, Florida State University, 1990), pp. 119-141.


  1. How did granny midwives differ from trained lay midwives? How did trained lay midwives differ from nurse-midwives in terms of their training; their relationship to doctors and state health departments; their “authority” and capacity to provide medical and nursing care?
  2. Did lay midwives provide obstetrics care in the North? In all areas of the South?
  3. What role did lay midwives play in reducing maternal and infant mortality?
  4. What role did lay midwives play in completing birth certificates and creating databases of vital statistics?
  5. How were lay midwives trained? Who conducted the training?  How often were lay midwives required to participate in “refresher courses”?  Do you think their training was adequate for what they were being asked to do?
  6. Why were lay midwives used by state health departments to help deliver obstetrics care in rural areas?
  7. What contributions did lay midwives make to reducing health disparities?
  8. What steps were taken to eliminate Black (and white) lay midwives?
  9. Why did lay midwifery last into the 1970s?