Queen Victoria, 1837-1901, had nine children and numerous grand-children.1 The 19th century was an era of large families but many babies didn’t survive into adulthood. Childbirth was dangerous for both mother and child. Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, wanted her to use pain relief techniques in childbirth. This was resisted by the medical hierarchy. They were over-ruled in 1853, which was a triumph for women and science.
Many mothers died during childbirth because doctors didn’t understand the critical importance of cleanliness. They usually had unwashed hands, wearing street clothing whilst delivering babies. Worse, doctors moved seamlessly between activities, “physicians, especially himself worked with cadavers a lot and they had very high maternal mortality rates.”2 Victoria avoided cross-contamination because she was the sole patient of elite doctors. The queen had servants, nannies and good living conditions and therefore wasn’t exhausted by daily life. She also wasn’t living in squalor with all the hardships that that implied. In that era she had optimum conditions for childbirth.
Babies had a 25% chance of living to five years old.3 Environmental diseases, poor diets and accidents were killers. Smallpox reaped havoc and was tackled with vaccination,
“…it was 1840 before vaccination became freely available for the UK population, and 1853 before it became compulsory for infants under three months. A further Vaccination Act passed by Parliament in 1867 made it a criminal offence to deny a child vaccination up to the age of 14 years, but the legislation to impose vaccination really only gained teeth in the 1870s. (my emphasis)
Victoria lived until she was 81 and all nine of her children survived into adulthood.
James Young Simpson discovered the potency of chloroform in 18474 by using it on himself and his assistants. Simpson’s experiment with chloroform was widely publicized. Albert wanted Victoria to use chloroform whilst giving birth to her sixth child, Princess Louise, in 1848. This proved controversial.
The use of chloroform was cutting-edge science5 and still experimental. Prudence was understandable as it was only a few months since Simpson had successfully demonstrated the technique. Nonetheless Albert embraced modernity and change and wanted to save Victoria from pain.
When Victoria’s eighth pregnancy was due in 1853, she overruled her medical advisors and employed John Snow to supervise the application of chloroform. “He brought obstetric anesthesia into acceptance against religious, ethical, and medical beliefs by administering chloroform to Queen Victoria for the births of Prince Leopold and Princess Beatrice.”6
Snow was an outstanding doctor and medical scientist. Religious leaders tried to prevent his use of chloroform and he scorned them as though they were medieval. There was radical change in the mid-19th century which was actively supported by Albert. In 1859 Charles Darwin published his ground breaking book on natural selection7 which challenged precepts of Victorian theology. Science drove the Victorian era with many innovations, which are still recognisable today.8
The Victorian era was a period of dramatic change. The Industrial Revolution was accelerating with numerous innovations in science and technology. Medical science caught up with innovations in childbirth and killer diseases. Albert and the Queen embraced modernity with the use of chloroform and pain relief for the births of their eighth and nineth children. They promoted scientific interventions and benefitted women who no longer suffered unmediated childbirth pains.
Addendum: Maternal death rates
1 For a comprehensive list of her children and grand-children see Queen Victoria’s Children and Grandchildren (thoughtco.com)
2 Childbed Fever | Mothers Mortality Rates in the 19th Century (wordpress.com) The man referred to is the Hungarian doctor Semmelveis who noticed that midwives who didn’t work with the dead had significantly lower mortality rates.
3 How has life expectancy changed over time? – Office for National Statistics (ons.gov.uk)
4 James Young Simpson | Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (rcpe.ac.uk)
5 Chloroform – Wikipedia see also Anesthesia and Queen Victoria (ucla.edu)
6 John Snow, MD: anaesthetist to the Queen of England and pioneer epidemiologist (nih.gov)
7 Charles Darwin: history’s most famous biologist | Natural History Museum (nhm.ac.uk)
8 The long transition from Victorian technology | Odeboyz’s Blog (oedeboyz.com)