We’re covering early childbirth in my history of medicine course this week. Much of what I talk about comes from my book, Pregnant Fictions: Childbirth and the Fairy Tale in Early-Modern France. The history of early childbirth is just fascinating–and the history of early caesarean sections doubly so.
In 1581, Francois Rosset was one of the first surgeons to claim that the procedure could be done successfully. We know, however, that he never tried it himself. This did not, however, keep him from describing the case of a women who presumably survived the surgery not just once, but six times.
For as optimistic as Rosset may have been, he was something of a renegade thinker. More established surgeons like Ambroise Pare argued vehemently against the idea in 1585.
Almost 80 years later, doctors still considered the c-section to be a “great excess of inhumanity, of cruelty and of barbarity” (Mauriceau 1668). And others felt that performing a c-section would be the surest road to hell possible.
Now, keep in mind that anthesthia and antisepsis are nowhere near the medical radar in the 17th century. There were plenty of painful, unmedicated, surgeries performed at the time. But this one was particularly concerning because of high death rates. And, of course, not one–but two–lives were at stake.
By the 18th century, caesarian sections became increasingly common as surgeons refined the procedure. Early c-section incisions (despite the illustration above) were often done across the belly horizontally. Surgeons shifted from the paramedial incision to a central vertical incision, one that did not slice through quite as many muscles. By the end of the 18th century, surgeons such as Andre Levret were claiming that the procedure was “praticable on living women”–and argued that it was at times absolutely necessary.