“Call the Midwife:” Horrors and Humanity in 1950s London

Dec 11, 2012, 9:00 AM, Posted by

Vernell DeWitty, PhD, RN, is the deputy program director for New Careers in Nursing, a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

Every now and then a television program gets it right, and so it is with “Call the Midwife.” This BBC-produced program aired on PBS this fall, and will be back with a new episode in December. Set in London's very pre-revitalized East End during the late 1950s, and based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, the series chronicles the adventures of a group of midwives working at the Nonnatus House, a nursing convent named for the early cesarean-surviving patron saint of childbirth.  

The series is blunt about the medical practices of the day and the state of birth control and female empowerment at the time. But the strange pull of this series is its humanity, not its horrors.

It is easy to think that women were always tended to during pregnancy, childbirth and delivery; however, this is not the case. We tend to forget the number of women who died in childbirth and the high rate of infant mortality due to lack of proper care not that many years ago.

But with the appearance of the nurse mid-wife, we realized significant decreases in maternal and infant mortality. Indeed, nurse midwives were the forerunners of the advanced practice nurse practitioners of today.

In one episode of “Call the Midwife,” a newly trained nurse midwife is called upon to handle a high-risk delivery where the infant, when birthed, showed no signs of life. She wrapped the infant in a blanket and placed it out of sight of the mother, turning her attention to the mom, who had started to hemorrhage. Not receiving her infant, the mother uttered a prayer in her native language while the father held her hand. Somehow these parents, who did not share a common spoken language, had managed to communicate throughout their marriage. Their shared understanding of this crisis moment was palpable, and the infant began to cry to the surprise of everyone. In this moment this new midwife was not only the care provider but also the recipient of a life lesson.

Throughout each episode, the show reminds us of our humanity and the true essence of caring as these newly trained nurse-midwives perfect their skills and quickly learn the art of caring. It is from the lessons demonstrated through the interactions of care provider and patient that one comes to realize the impact one care provider may have, not only on the mother and infant, but on the future for the entire family.

The American College of Nurse-Midwives (ACNM) is the professional association that represents certified midwives in the United States.  With roots dating to 1929, it is one of the oldest women's health care organizations in the United States. ACNM is sponsoring “Call the Midwife” on PBS.

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This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.