Mothers & Babies
It was not just the fighting from the rising that claimed lives in Easter week in Dublin in 1916. One mother died in the Rotunda from an empyema, which is a collection of pus in the lung. This was no doubt caused by the malnutrition and squalid living conditions associated with the poor of Dublin at that time.
There were 15 maternal deaths in the Rotunda in 1916. That’s a rate of 500 per 100,000 births, today it is 10 per 100,000 births. The majority of these deaths were from conditions that are easily treatable today including infections, blood clots and nausea and vomiting of pregnancy. Access to basic maternity care was limited for large parts of the country and even those lucky to have their babies in maternity institutions had to battle against the dangers of infection and haemorrhage when giving birth. There was no such thing as antibiotics or blood transfusions in 1916.
The figures for infant mortality are even more frightening from that era. In 1916 the infant mortality rate was 160 per 1000 births. Today in 2016 it is 3 per 1000 births. The urban mortality rate in cities such as Dublin was much higher than the rural mortality rate. Excessive crowding in the Dublin tenements, poor sanitation and inadequate waste disposal were important factors in the dramatic spread of infection.
Maternity hospital confinements were far less common in 1916 apart from the relatively small number of maternity hospital births and those taking place in workhouses – often to outcast unmarried mothers – the normal setting for confinement was the mother’s home.
Midwives were scarce and poorly paid at the time and there existed many untrained, unskilled women assisting with births known as ‘handywomen’. These women for a shilling a time would deliver a baby but often oblivious to the importance of hygiene, carrying infection from one mother to another. A report from the Dublin branch of Carnegie Trust in 1917 expressed disappointment that the handywoman was still allowed to “practice her nefarious trade unchecked and to carry the germs of childbirth fever from one victim to the next”.
The Rotunda Hospital ran an extern maternity service, somewhat similar to the popular BBC television show ‘Call the Midwife’ where staff would attend the births of women in their home. It was known as The District.
These trained midwives could tend to mothers with skill and had awareness of the necessary hygiene precautions. The district was very popular as mothers did not have to leave their homes to give birth, an important consideration for those with many children and husbands away fighting in the great war.