Before Napoleon there was Smellie

“…there are extant several directions and recipes on the subject of Midwifery, collected from the writings of one Cleopatra…and some people imagine this was no other than the famous Cleopatra, queen of Egypt…”

William Smellie, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Midwifery, Vol. 1, 5th ed. (1766)

Pausing on the fact that there were 18th century speculations claiming the Cleopatra wrote advice on midwifery (though Smellie later dismisses this in his treatise), I am surprised to see Egypt being referenced in a scientific medical treatise that was first published in London in 1752.

It is not surprising that Egyptians had advanced medical knowledge thousands of years before Dr. William Smellie was born in 1697.

It is not surprising that knowledge of Egyptian medical, political, artistic, and scientific advancements created thousands of years before the birth of Smellie and his contemporaries, would have reached Britain’s shores by the time Smellie was writing in the 18th century. If nothing else, Rome’s invasion of Britain that began in 43 AD would forcefully unite “Britannia” and Egypt as part of the Empire, thus leading to the potential transfer of knowledge between the two lands.

What is surprising for me is the mention of Egypt in the pages of an 18th century British medical treatise, and not in the copies of 18th century British Bibles and religious sermons.

Many folks I know believe Europe to have been closed to the knowledge of Egypt until Napoleon’s 1798 campaign against British interests in Egypt and the surrounding region. Works that were produced by French scholars accompanying Napoleon’s l’armee d’Orient such as Voyage dans la haute et la basse Egypte (Denon, 1802), or Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt during the campaigns of General Bonaparte in that country, ignited European interest to the point of having Egyptian architecture, art, and sacred artifacts transported out of Egypt to create museums to satisfy European interests.

Smellie does not put Egyptian knowledge on a pedestal.

“…indeed it is natural to suppose, that while the simplicity of the early ages remained, women would have recourse to none but persons of their own sex, in diseases peculiar to it; accordingly, we find in Egypt Midwifery was practiced by women…

…in Athens a law was made, prohibiting women and slaves from practicing physic [medicine] in any shape: but the mistaken modesty of the sex rendered it afterwards absolutely necessary to allow free women the privilege of sharing this art with the men.”

William Smellie, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Midwifery, Vol. 1, 5th ed. (1766)

While Smellie does acknowledge the Egyptian practice of midwifery, he focuses on the “free women” of Athens who shared their knowledge of midwifery “with the men.”

The way that Smellie writes of Egypt, where “Midwifery was practiced by women,” he writes that “women would have [no other] recourse,” or no other choice, but to seek another woman for help with childbirth. Smellie seems to imply that given a choice, women who were able and free to choose, would choose a male physician to assist them in bringing life into the world. As happened in Athens. Not Egypt. According to Smellie.

Knowing Smellie’s goal of promoting the practice of “man-midwives,” or bringing 18th century male physicians into obstetrics, his tone is unsurprising.

In his Treatise, Egypt is honored for understanding midwifery. Athens is deemed superior by Smellie. Superior only perhaps because free Athenian women brought male physicians, or “man-midwives,” into the birthing chamber.

According to Smellie.

And according to Smellie’s readings of the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates.

I wonder what Smellie would write, had he been exposed to hieroglyphs. Perhaps in those hieroglyphs he would have read the works of Ancient Egyptian physicians and midwives. I wonder then if the tone of his Treatise would have changed.

For now, I can only wonder what the mothers and midwives of Egypt would make of Hippocrates, or Smellie, and their writings on the experience of childbirth.

I wonder how Cleopatra would react.

Copyright Off The Porch History 2021

Social Distance. It’s Smallpox, Abigail Adams.

“I have attended publick (sic) worship constantly, except one day and a half ever since I have been in Town.”

Abigail Adams to John Adams, 5 August 1776

Even though her beloved John was fighting his own battle with the smallpox virus, even though John was experiencing “Pains, Achs (sic), [and] Qualms” and had an “Absolute Fear” of the “Paper” on which he was writing his wife, that “so much infected as it is,” if he sent it he feared the letter would cause Abigail and their children to die of smallpox, even knowing all of this, Abigail Adams attended worship and other public gatherings five days after her own inoculation against the virus.

Inoculation was incubation.

Abigail knew of the dangers of smallpox. Boston and Braintree, where she would worship and live was no stranger to the ravages of this virus.

John had less to fear about the “Paper” he would send to Abigail and their children since Abigail knew how to sterilize it. Abigail knew to use smoke to sterilize letters she received from John as she had done with letters received during their engagement amidst a 1764 outbreak of the virus.

As Elizabeth Fenn writes in Pox Americana,

Abigail Adams did not know about viruses or the way they worked, but like most colonists, she was clearly aware that smallpox was contagious.

Abigail Adams is not widely regarded as a stupid woman.


It’s interesting.

She obviously knew what smallpox could do in her community. Smallpox had been attacking New England since at least 1722, twenty two years before she was born. This was not a new virus. Even before she “went with the Multitude (WHAT?!) into Kings Street to hear the proclamation for Independence read and proclaimed,” she had inoculated herself and her children against this virus in order to combat its virulence (gobsmacked parenthetical exclamation added). Twelve years before this she was sterilizing letters from her beloved John who was writing her through yet another epidemic.

She. Knew. What this virus could do.

And three days later she began experiencing “many disagreeable Sensations.” And she went “out to meeting” anyways.

It’s like Florida. Or Michigan. Or North Carolina. Or any other state in the Union.

Why, across the centuries, in the face of death do we still risk our lives and the lives of those we don’t even know (see, “Multitudes” above) to gather?

What innate human drive for community leads us to risk death?

Copyright Off The Porch History, 2021 and Elizabeth A. Fenn, Pox Americana (2001)