- Caregiving on the Periphery: Historical Perspectives on Nursing and Midwifery in Canada
Caregiving on the Periphery: Historical Perspectives on Nursing and Midwifery in Canada is the latest contribution to the vibrant fields of nursing history and the history of midwifery. Nursing and midwifery have been central to health care provisions in communities across North America, from indigenous people to immigrants to enslaved African Americans. This volume, edited by Myra Rutherdale, investigates the history of caregiving beyond medicine and the modern hospital. It focuses on northern and rural nursing and midwifery in Canada in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Its purpose is to demonstrate that women's health work matters to individuals, communities, and nation building, even on the so-called periphery.
Caregiving on the Periphery is organized into four parts, with the first part on midwives and the following three parts on nurses. Rutherdale provides an excellent introduction, in which she mentions the multifaceted dimensions of midwifery and nursing, followed by eleven essays that provide fascinating accounts of women's work as nurses and/or midwives. This collection takes up some of the [End Page 509] key questions in the history of nursing, such as who is a nurse, what constitutes nursing work, and how place shapes its meaning. However, by including several chapters on midwifery and nurse-midwives, it also raises questions about the relationship between caring for the sick and attending women in childbirth, and the connections between the history of nursing and the history of midwifery. Doctors appear in the book, but their contributions to health care and their relations with nurses and midwives are not the central story.
One of the main themes of this volume is that female caregivers did a wide variety of work not fully captured by our current understanding of the terms nurse and midwife. For example, the first essay, by Judith Young, examines female caregivers in nineteenth-century Toronto. Despite the limited sources available, her excavation efforts have produced some very interesting results. She found women working as independent midwives, monthly nurses (who cared for a new mother and infant), sick nurses, and nurses at the Insane Asylum and the General Hospital. She shows how the status of midwives and nurses has shifted over time and argues that midwives were at the upper level of the health care hierarchy in the early to mid-nineteenth century, while untrained nurses working at the Insane Asylum and the General Hospital were at the lowest level.
The story of Mennonite midwives, presented by Marlene Epp, also adds additional contours to the history of midwifery. As scholars have shown, midwives were important figures among immigrants, whether they originated in Europe or Japan. Epp demonstrates that immigrant midwives among the Mennonites, an ethnic-religious community originally from Russia, Prussia, and the Ukraine, performed a wide range of essential tasks. They cared for rural community members from birth to death, looking after women in childbirth, attending the sick, injured, and dying, and acting as undertakers.
Several of the essays provide biographical studies, including of a nurse-midwife in Newfoundland and an Alaskan Highway nurse. Linda Kealey documents the working life of Myra Grimsley Bennett, an English nurse-midwife who came to Newfoundland in 1921. For over sixty years Bennett provided a wide range of health care services, including dentistry, to the people of Newfoundland, an outpost of the British Empire until it joined Canada in 1949. Her story illustrates themes of upward mobility through caregiving work, community leadership, and the multiple demands on health care providers who worked in isolated towns. Taking a similar biographical approach but drawing on the genre of northern travel writing, Myra Rutherdale examines the memoir of Amy Wilson, a nurse from Alberta who worked in northern Canada. Wilson wrote about her experiences as an Alaska Highway nurse for the Department...