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

An Open Letter

Dear One of My Third Great-Grandfathers,

                You’re quiet, I’ll give you that. It’s deafening. The words that they plaster onto your memory, in your defense they say, are all I hear. I still remember the first time I saw you. It’s those memories that impact you so deeply, that are so formative, they direct your path for eternity. They cut you off, they grab you by the shoulders twisting you around whether you like it or not. This moment, when I first saw you, my breath caught.

The memory of this moment formed a visceral imprint on my life. When I remember it, I can see the way the light poured in and over us. I can smell it, I can taste it. I can feel my pulse pounding beneath my young skin.

                I was given a family history project at school. No worries there. I am privileged and blessed enough that the archival system seems to care about my ancestors, about you, and to be related to your descendants who have built a foundation of paperwork and pictures for me to easily fill in the family tree. That is a privilege. Part of the family pictures kept and protected was a copy of a daguerreotype. A copy of your portrait.

There you were. In your butternut gray uniform, because you had been told to fight for South Carolina and The South. That was the first time I questioned my morality, looking down at your daguerreotype copy.

I was seven and wondered if I was condemned to evil because I am descended from you. Blood of my blood. I think sometimes I even have your eyes.

You fought for evil. You are not the only one. You are not the only one in my family, but you’re the first one of the family that I saw. You’re the dictionary picture, putting definition to the word-vomit answers I would get when I would ask, “So. The Civil War. What was our part in it?”

Other family members of mine (those you’re related to, and those you’re related to only through me) who also fought for The Evil have left their own words. They have left their pride. They have left their ego and their blind, passive-aggressive, short-sighted prejudice in the documents that have been kept and protected.

And where are you? I know where you were. From the references I read, you saw more than any other of my fighting family members.

Is that it?

A daguerreotype, a picture from later in life, and a small snippet of something you wrote to your wife?

That’s it.

I see.

Well, that just makes me want to scream.

In case that wasn’t obvious. I know no subtlety. Just ask the people who know me.

Do we have that in common? If I were to ask those who knew you, who you are, would I see a masculine portrait of myself unfurl? Just- FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE SCREAM SOMETHING!

Because what they’re telling me…for your defense, they say…do you agree?

I have to know if you agree. I need to know if you want to see these monuments topple to the ground you fought for. Were you present when they went up? Did you help? You were a master mason after all. Were the monuments your idea, or did your voice contribute to their creation? Or did you curse their existence every time you’d pass them, since they were reminders of victories lost, and the men lost to them.

At parades for the people, did you ever have to wrap a tight smile across that portrait face I saw, when you were approached, your hand was shook by those who would die for a monument to dodge the battlefield you refused to dodge for yourself?

Tell me how many of those monument men’s names you knew.

Tell me how many times on a field somewhere you found yourself spontaneously fall into prayer because you knew in your bones that you were about to become one of them. That your infant son’s memories of you would only be a name carved in a monument. Did you want that? Did you just want it to end? Even if it meant your separation from him? And my grandmother, your wife? What of her who was left behind for duty’s sake? Did you only want your name, your son’s memories to be held in the stories your wife would tell him?

Did you ever tell him your stories from your lips? What only your eyes saw, what only your ears could hear? Or did you surrender, cause he could never understand.

I’ll admit, that my civilian brain cannot understand the realities of military service.

I cannot understand what you saw.

My humanity can imagine why you would never want to see or hear that war again, even in memory.

The historian in me sees how others speak for you.

The historian in me wishes you’d left tomes and volumes pouring forth every detail experienced by you.

What would they tell that is different?

You still fought for evil.

Blood of my blood, that’s not a lie and it never will be.

You did as you were told, even if you never owned.

Were you ashamed?

Were you happy?

Would you do it all again?

Even if they didn’t tell you to, would you enlist as soon as was possible?

Did your wife want you to go?

Did she need your protection?

Of all those who served and spoke, it’s you I want to hear from.

Describe to me the feeling of finding life continuing.

Describe to me the absolute knowing that you were able to walk off that field, marching home over hundreds and thousands of bodies.

Describe to me the screams going silent and the sulfuric smoke rising.

And what made you special? What made your life worth more than another soldier?

What survives beyond you?

You’ve given your power to those who never knew you.

Because silence is now acquiescence.

Dear Seven-Year-Old-Me-Holding-That-Daguerreotype-Copy,

Do not be silent. Do not do as you are told.

Be loud. Ask them: Why they are Proud?

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)