Angelique Marguerite Le Boursier du Coudray, midwife to the nation of France, holds a substantial position in the history of early modern medicine. Mme du Coudray is most famous for her revolutionary midwifery teaching techniques, including an incredibly detailed textbook and lifelike machines utilized to simulate childbirth (1).
As a practicing midwife in 18th century Paris, Mme du Coudray violated the majority of standards demanded of midwives; she had no children of her own, was not married (though possibly widowed), and believed in the organization of midwives (2).
In 1751, Mme du Coudray traveled to Auvergne, where birth survival rates were incredibly low, and was exposed to the horrors of untrained peasant midwifery. She dedicated herself to improving midwifery practices in rural France, designing child-bearing machines constructed from leather, dyed fabric, padding, and real pelvic bones, wicker, or wood to replicate deliveries (3, 4). Later models included sponges that released dyed liquids representing blood and amniotic fluid at proper moments (3).
In 1759, the same year that Mme du Coudray released the first edition of her midwifery manual Abrege de L’art des Accouchements, King Louis XV appointed her to spearhead a nationwide public health campaign educating female students and male surgeons in rural provinces (5). This campaign, the first of its kind, would counteract the low birth survival rates throughout the country and rebuild the soldier population that had been depleted in the Seven Years’ War.
Mme du Coudray’s teaching initiative was a huge success, lasting 30 years and educating an approximated 400,000 peasant women; in addition, a number of male surgeons taught her technique to later students. By the end of her career in the 1780s, approximately 2/3 of practicing French midwives used her techniques; success rates were reflected in the increased numbers of successful births that appeared in the 1780 and 1790 censuses (5, 6). Before her 1794 death, she ensured that her legacy was lasting by providing for her “niece” Marguerite Guillaumanche and her surgeon husband Coutanceau to continue teaching the du Coudray technique at France’s first maternity hospital (5).
Image: “The Machine.” Madame du Coudray’s Machines. Musees en Haute Normandie.
(1) Gelbart, Nina. “The Monarchy’s Midwife who Left No Memoirs.” French Historical Studies (19) 1996: 997-1023.
(2) Cody, Lisa. “Sex, Civility, and the Self: du Coudray, d’Eon, and Eighteenth Century Conceptions of Gendered, National, and Psychological Identity.” French Historical Studies (24) 2001: 379-407.
(3) Riskin, Jessica. “Eighteenth Century Wetware.” Representations (83) 2003: 97-125.
(4) Stanley, Autumn. Mother and Daughters of Invention. New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1995.
(5) Marland, Hilary, ed. The Art of Midwifery: Early Modern Midwives on Europe. London: Routledge, 1993.
(6) Gelbart, Nina. The King’s Midwife: A History and Mystery of Madame du Coudray. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.