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La "Machine" de Madame du Coudray: More Babies for France

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Madame du Coudray was eighteenth-century midwife that dedicated her life to educating midwives throughout France. After ten years as a midwife in Paris, Madame du Coudray was hired in 1759 by Louis XV to travel throughout France with a goal of curbing infant mortality to boost the declining French population. Instead of creating more surgeons, the king decided that midwives should be better trained and appointed Madame du Coudray to the unusual, highly political and well-paid position of national midwife.

Du Coudray is known for presenting her theories on birth to rural French midwives, using the “machine,” a model of a pelvis with accompanying fetus and placenta to demonstrate the mechanics of birth attendant techniques. She is credited with having promoted a shift from traditional French midwifery, which emphasized the health of the mother, to the technology-as-progress medical model of childbirth that emphasized the baby as a product and a boon to the population.

The only remaining “machine” is from 1778 and is displayed in Le musée Flaubert et d’histoire de la medicine in Rouen, France.





Cassidy, T., (2007). Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are BornNew York: Grove Press.

The king’s midwife: a history and mystery of Madame du Coudray - Reviewed by Ann F. La Berge. (2007). Retrieved August 20, 2009, from PubMed Central Medical History: http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/pagerender.fcgi?artid=1044340&pageindex=1


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Reader Comments (19)

The baby-as-product line of thinking has caught my attention recently. Our midwife told us, after the HBAC, about the registration process for the birth of our child. She mentioned that in Australia, when a newborn is registered, it is automatically added as an asset to the country, as in, the baby's lifetime tax contribution is estimated and added as a financial boost. Well I don't know if this is done in Illinois where I was born, but it explains a lot to think that the one of the reasons that maternal care is so shoddy, is that institutions and individuals receiving state money are protecting the future financial interests of the state by attempting to deliver live babies at whatever the (maternal) cost. This may not be the case in the US, but it wouldn't surprise me if every little John and Jane comes with an increasing tax tag depending on the year of their birth. This would also partially explain the numerous reports of women who have refused treatment, who were subsequently battered in the name of the health of their baby at the hands of angry attendants.

August 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnon

Anon, I should probably know this but is Australia's population decreasing?

August 20, 2009 | Registered CommenterJill

That's neat that instead of making birth the purview of doctors, midwifery was boosted.

In response to the line of thinking by your first commenter, I've heard that Australia pays a credit of some sort to parents who have a child -- I presume to increase population. I don't know if that means that the population is already decreasing, or if this is just an attempt to ward off that possibility. [The context in which I read it was, that parents are paid this money if they have a live birth or a fetal death after a certain gestational age. Apparently a late-term abortion is counted as a fetal death, so women can get pregnant and have an abortion at 30 weeks or something and still get the $3000 or whatever. They were attempting to close that loophole when I read the article, which is probably a couple of years ago, so that info may be a little old.] I do know that many European countries are experiencing population declines -- or they would be except for immigrant Muslim population expansion. A couple of interesting things about Europe I've read just in the past week or so is that 6 of the 7 most popular baby names in one country are Muslim; and a minority of schoolchildren in London have English as their first language. This is due to the double-whammy of reduced births among the ethnic English, Dutch, Italian, etc., and the increase of foreign-born population and their tendency to have large families.

August 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKathy

That is AWESOME. I am so glad one survived!

August 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNever teh Bride

Wow, they had it right...wish someone would step up like that now.

August 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKrista

Du Coudray's work sounds like it was a mixed bag. Here's an excerpt from the review quoted:

In spite of her accomplishments, du Coudray is no feminist hero. She was not an advocate for females. She did not emphasize her gender, but rather assumed she was the equal of males. She accepted the status quo and worked within the system, all the while seeing herself as a man of action. A vehicle of science and progress, du Coudray presented herself as an expert authority. Gelbart portrays her as a woman in charge, planning her strategy, charting her career trajectory. She was an exceptional woman, in no way representative of ordinary women. Given her attitude, skills, and her system of patronage, du Coudray defied the marginalization of women which was taking place in midwifery circles.

When du Coudray and her entourage arrived in a town, she sometimes aroused resistance from local authorities and midwives. She was an outsider, a medical colonizer, interfering with established childbirthing practices, which had been passed down from generation to generation and whose practitioners inspired confidence in local women. She medicalized and mechanized birth, referring to the mother as "the patient", and employing her "machine" as her principal teaching aid. Gelbart portrays du Coudray's mission as an infusion of modernity into a pre-modern world of stories. Du Coudray was an expert, disseminating modernization throughout the provinces.

Du Coudray exemplifies the technocratic approach of the French Enlightenment which included the central government's goal of uniformity of procedures and government training in the name of science, technology, progress, and national security. Midwifery was for her a state affair. In her teaching she privileged the technical, referring to her mannequin as the "machine". An entrepreneur, she emphasized the baby as the "product", a departure from typical early modern French childbirthing practices which stressed the welfare of the mother over the baby. Her aim was to produce babies for France "like a cobbler makes shoes" (p. 113).

August 21, 2009 | Registered CommenterJill


Interesting! Sounds like the immigrant population is keeping European populations from declining. This was a funny (paraphrased) line from the article-- "the increase of foreign-born population and their tendency to have large families." I know what you're talking about-- sometimes articles sound like they're written by someone's grandpa complaining about all them dern ferners with their big families. It's even funnier when xenophobic gramps is from a family of 10.

August 21, 2009 | Registered CommenterJill

That's my kind of birth machine!

August 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAmy Romano

I'm loving the fetal muppets she used. Amazing how they maintain a very French facial expression.

August 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterReality Rounds

RR, you are killing me! New on Sesame Street: Cletus the Muppet Fetus.

August 21, 2009 | Registered CommenterJill
This blog is all done!
Thanks for wanting to comment. This is an archive of a blog that once was. Take care! Jill