Polish Midwives

Oral History with a Daughter of a Midwife
by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab

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In 1990 I conducted an oral history with Ms. Alice Kozlowski of Warren Avenue in Buffalo, NY.  Her mother, Rose Kozlowski, was a certified midwife.  At the time of the interview I was able to see Rose Kozlowski’s diploma singed and sealed by the examiners on April 11, 1916. The following excerpts are from that oral history.

Alice Kozlowski:

“My mother studied midwifery under Dr. Kavinoky.  He had that drugstore on the corner of Sears and Broadway.  He was my mother’s teacher, taught her everything.  He used to take my mother with him on confinement cases.  My mother had such a nice personality that it got around in the Jewish neighborhood.  After awhile they’d say  ‘bring that nice lady’ so he always took my mother.  Later on she joined the midwives association.  It was called the Stowarzyszenia Akuszerk Polskich.  Mrs. Przewozna was usually president of the association because nobody wanted to take it.

There were certain things that midwives could not do if anything was not going exactly the way it should according to the book.  They had to call a doctor.  Sometimes if there were multiple births…my mother had several twins that she helped the women with…but by the time the doctor came my mother had already taken care of the mother, the twins and everything but she couldn’t get credit for it.  The doctor’s name went on the birth certificate.  My mother had several doctors on call…Dr. Gorek, Dr. Tyraszynski, Dr. Duszynski, Dr. Butlak and Dr. Kavinoky.  She carried birth certificates with her.  When the baby was born she wrote down everything that the health department required and handed them in.

Every month the health department sent a nurse over to check my mother’s birthing bag.  There was a white linen cloth with compartments sewed into it.  Everything had to be in that particular compartment.  I don’t know what all was in there but I k now you had to have scissors for cutting the umbilical cord…something to put in the baby’s eyes – drops of some kind…thread or string…castile soap…washcloths.  She had two bags.  One was a large bag just for the confinement case and she had a white apron in there.  The other was a small bag to make visits after the baby was born.  A midwife had to go every day for seven days to visit her patient.  She had to bathe the baby.  She also changed the sheets.  Not do the laundry but change the sheets.  The funny thing about the big bag was that the children always thought my mother brought the baby in it.

It was hard work being a midwife.  The midwives weren’t allowed to give any medicine so everything was natural birth.  During the summer it was awful.  My mother wore a heavy corset.  The women hung onto her during labor.  She came home completely drenched right through the corset, the dress, everything.  And that was before she had a car so she walked home like this.

My mother was supposed to receive $5.00 per confinement.  Sometimes the poor people didn’t have it.  Later on they voted to increase it to $10.00 per confinement.  Those who could, paid.  Sometimes she never got paid or got paid very late.  I remember one time, my mother was in the yard.  She wasn’t a midwife anymore…she had retired and couldn’t stand too much so she was sitting on a little stool and cutting the grass by hand.  A lady passed by the yard.  Then she turned back and said to my mother, ‘Pani, I still owe you $5.00 from when you delivered my daughter.’  The daughter was already grown up by then.  ‘And you know, Pani, it bothers me.’  And she took out $5.00 and gave it to my mother.  ‘You keep it,’ my mother said but the lady refused.  ‘Pani,’ she said, ‘my conscience was bothering me that you waited so long.’”

Biographical Data on Dr. Samuel Kavinoky, MD
(excerpted from Municipality of Buffalo, NY: A History 1720-1923, edited by Henry Wayland  Hill)
  • Dr. Kavinoky was born in Russia, September 24, 1875, son of Bernard and Martha Kavinoky; his father a businessman and contractor, who was engaged in supplying the Russian Army with food.
  • When he was eighteen years of age he came to New York City where he remained for a period of one year.  At the end of that year he went to Albany, where he was employed in a drug store.  He remained there for eight months and then came to Buffalo.  In 1896 he entered the University of Buffalo, matriculating in the pharmaceutical department.  He graduated in 1898.  He entered the employ of a druggist.  In 1901 he entered the medical department of the University of Buffalo.
  • In 1902 he purchased a pharmacy of his own and worked as a pharmacist.  In that year he also married Caroline Cohn, daughter of Pincus and Tillia (Beck) Cohn of Buffalo.  In 1905 he graduated from the institution with the degree M.D.  That same year he passed the state medical examinations and opened an office in the drug store that he had purchased.
  • In 1911 he took a special course in training in obstetrics in the charity hospitals of Berlin in Germany and since that time he has specialized in that branch of medical practice.  He has given special training to women in midwifery, and had prepared sixty-five women to pass the midwifery examinations.  He has also written courses of study for midwives, and has made a valuable contribution to the efficiency of that part of his work.
  • Dr. Kavinoky died on January 23, 1943 of a heart attack.

In the Buffalo City Directory for the year 1922 there were 58 View the Polish Midwives database, of which 43 were women of Polish descent.  In 1934, the number dropped to 15 listed of which 10 were Polish.


The Midwifery Law of 1885

In 1885 a law was enacted regulating the practice of midwifery by midwives in Erie County.  Dr. John H. Pryor is credited as the original promoter of the bill.  This law was amended slightly in 1897.  By 1911 there were similar laws governing the practice of midwives in other counties of New York State.  There was no general State law regulating the practice of midwives.

The following is the text of the original law of 1885:

Chapter 320.  An Act regulating and restraining the practice of midwifery in Erie County by others than legally authorized physicians.  Passes May 22, 1885.

The People of the State of New York, represented in Senate and Assembly, do enact as follows:

Section 1.  On or before the first day of July, eighteen hundred and eighty five, the county judge of Erie County shall, by an order to be filed in the Erie County clerk’s office, appoint a board of examiners in  midwifery to consist of five members who shall have been licensed to practice physic and surgery in this state, and thereafter as often as any vacancy shall occur in said board, said county judge shall, by a like order, fill such vacancy.

Section 2.  Immediately after the filing of said order, said board shall organize by the selection of one of its members as president, and of another secretary and treasurer, who shall hold their office for one year, and be thereafter annually elected, and shall adopt and have power to adopt and enforce such rules and regulations as are necessary to carry out the purposes and provisions of this act.

Section 3.  Such examiners shall meet on the first Tuesday of October and April in each year, and on such other days as such board may appoint in the city of Buffalo, after due notice thereof is publicly given, and shall then examine all candidates of the age of twenty-one years and  upwards, possessed of good moral character, who shall present themselves to be examined for license to practice midwifery in the county of Erie, and shall, on receipt of ten dollars, issue there certificate to any person so examined who shall be found by them to be qualified, which certificate shall set forth that said board has found the person to whom it is issued qualified to practice midwifery, and shall be recorded by the clerk of the county of Erie in a book to be kept by him for that purpose.  All moneys going into the treasury of this board shall be applied to defray the expenses of this board.

Section 4.  Any person who has received and recorded such certificate shall thereupon be designated a midwife, and authorized and entitled within the county of Erie to practice of midwifery in cases of normal labor, and in no others; but such persons shall not in any case of labor use instruments of any kind, nor assist labor by any artificial, forcible or mechanical means, nor perform any version nor attempt to remove adherent placenta, nor administer, prescribe, advise or employ any poisonous or dangerous drug, herb, or medicine, nor attempt treatment of disease except where the attendance of a physician cannot be speedily procured, and in such cases such person shall at once and in the most speedy way procure the attendance of a physician.

Section 5.  Said board of examiners shall have power, on proper cause shown, and after hearing the person holding their certificate, to recommend to the county judge of Erie County the revocation of the same, and said judge shall have power to revoke such certificate and license.

Section 6.  Any person who shall practice or without the attendance of a physician where one can be procured, attend a case of midwifery or obstetrics within the county of Erie, after the thirty-first day of December, eighteen hundred and eighty-five, without being duly authorized so to do under the existing laws of this state, or without having received and recorded the certificate provided for by this act shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction thereof shall be fined not less than fifty dollars nor more than a hundred dollars, and shall forfeit any certificate theretofore granted under the provision of this act.

Section 7.  This act shall take effect immediately.

The following rules were adopted at the organization of the board:

Any person applying for examination must furnish satisfactory evidence that she is of good moral character, twenty-one years of age, or more, and has attended, or assisted in attending ten or more cases of labor.  The examination will be both written and oral, and the answers must be written or spoken, as the board may direct.  Applicants will be examined in English or German, as they may desire.  It will be the aim of the board to determine whether a candidate is competent to fulfill the requirements and instructions of the law as stated in Sections three and four, and the character and scope of the examination will be planned with that intention.

The candidate must possess a knowledge of the following essential subjects: the structure of the external and internal parts of the female generative organs and pelvis; the symptoms, mechanism, course and management of natural labor, the symptoms and indications of complicated or abnormal labor, and the emergencies which render it necessary to seek a physician’s advice; how to care for the mother and child after the child is born; the hygiene of the sick-room, including cleanliness, etc.; the prevention of disease, and how to avoid infection and contagion.

There are many books, which may be consulted, and the board recommends: “A Manual of Midwifery for Midwives and Medical Students,” by Francourt Barnes, M.D., London and “LehrBuch der Hebammenkunst,” by  von Dr. Bernard Schultze, Leipsig.

In the year 1894, a series of lectures was given to midwives in English, German and Polish.  During its existence (1885 to 1911 when the article was being written) the board passed and licensed one hundred and seventy individuals.  This is one hundred in addition to those practicing in 1885, at the time the board was established.  The board called the attention of midwives to the regulations:

Every midwife, before examining the patient, should see to it that the bedding and personal clothing of the patient are clean.  The patient should receive a bath.  The external genitals should be thoroughly cleansed.  The vagina should be irrigated.  For the irrigation and the bathing of the external genitals, solution No. 1 should be employed.  (Solution No. 1 is made by mixing carbolic acid in the proportion of two teaspoonfuls in a pint of water.)

The hands and forearms of the midwives should be thoroughly scrubbed, for at least minutes, by means of a brush and warm water and soap.  The spaces under and around the fingernails must especially be cleaned, by means of an instrument for the purpose, and by thorough scrubbing these parts with the brush and soapsuds.  The warm water used for the above purposes should contain carbolic acid to the strength of solution No. 1.  Before each of the later examinations, the hands must again be cleaned in the same solution.  If a towel is used to dry the hands, this must also be absolutely clean.  Before making an examination the finger or fingers, if two are used, must be dipped in Vaseline the strength of No. 2.  (Mixture No. 2 is carbolic acid three parts to Vaseline one hundred parts.  This must be prepared by a druggist to whom the above must be shown.)

During the lying-in, the patient’s clothing and bedding should be kept clean and changed sufficiently often for this purpose.  If a catheter is employed, this should be absolutely clean.  If it is of rubber, it should be new, and laid in No. 1 for five minutes, if of metal, it should be placed in boiling water for at least five minutes, and then for at least five minutes more in No. 1.  Similar precautions must be exercised with the nozzles of syringes employed.

The large number of cases of inflammation of the eyes in newborn, with the alarming amount of blindness caused thereby, have determined the board to advise the following procedure in all cases.  Immediately on the birth of the child, if possible before it has opened its eyes, the lids should be wiped with a soft cloth, moistened in clear lukewarm water.  At the time of the first dressing, one or two drops of Solution No. 3 should be dropped into each eye of the newborn (Solution No. 3 must be made by a druggist, according to the following prescription: Argenti Nitrat., Gram 1 and Aquae Destil, Grams 50 to be kept in dark bottles).  This will result in a slight redness of the eyes for a day or two, and serve as a positive preventive against the disease mentioned.  In this connection, attention is called to the following:

The People of the State of New York, represented in Senate and Assemble, do enact as follows:

Section 1.  Should any midwife or nurse having charge of an infant in this state, notice that one or both eyes of such infant are inflamed or reddened at any time within two weeks after its birth, it shall be the duty of such midwife or nurse, so having charge of such infant, to report the fact in writing, within six hours, to the health officer or some legally qualified practitioner of medicine of the city, town or district in which the parents of the infant reside.

Section 2.  Any failure to comply with the provisions of this act shall be punished by a fine not to exceed one hundred dollars, or imprisonment not to exceed six months, or both.

Section 3.  This act shall take effect on the first of September, eighteen hundred and ninety.

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