The Straight Dope

I recently acquired a satellite dish and have become a shameless junkie of old Westerns. In half of these B movies of plains life, it seems there is a woman giving birth. After they give her the obligatory wooden spoon to bite on, someone always yells to boil some water. What's with the water?

-- Ryan Bailey, via the Internet

Really. Your first thought is that the boiling water was dreamed up by male screenwriters who had never assisted the miracle of childbirth. Anyone who's actually assisted at one thinks: I don't need boiling water, what I need is a bucket and a mop. A midwife we talked to guessed that it was mostly an excuse to get the husband out of the room.

But there was probably more to it than that. Midwives and such have been heating water since time immemorial to wash mother and baby following delivery. Water could also be used for warm compresses to ease pain during labor.

You didn't necessarily boil the water, though. Boiling water kills germs, but this was not understood until the late Nineteenth Century. Prior to that time, few saw the need for cleanliness. For example, doctors in the 1780s complained about midwives with dirty hands poking around in the mother's innards during labor.

Truth is, as long as only midwives were doing the poking, sterility wasn't that important. Only when doctors got involved did it become a matter of life and death. During the Nineteenth Century, as doctors began to supplant midwives at the bedsides of women giving birth, there was an alarming rise in complications such as puerperal fever. This often fatal illness resulted from the infection of vaginal or other tissue torn during childbirth. Midwives weren't major carriers of this disease, because they saw only a handful of patients a week. A doctor, on the other hand, might handle diseased tissue during an autopsy and then proceed to the delivery room, where he'd unwittingly infect the mother.

In 1880 Louis Pasteur showed that puerperal fever was caused by a particular type of bacteria. Meanwhile the English physician Joseph Lister was persuading his colleagues of the importance of antiseptics in surgery. By 1885 hospitals had begun to adopt antiseptic methods such as boiling water to sterilize instruments, including those used during childbirth. (Many cases of tetanus had previously resulted from cutting the umbilical cord with a dirty knife or scissors, and of course there were the infamous forceps.) One may reasonably suppose that word of this reached the prairies and that boiling water both to sterilize things and, after it cooled, to wash the hands of the attending midwife/doctor/cowpoke became a standard part of the prenatal drill.

That's not to say no one ever boiled water before the 1880s. Here's a recipe for a concoction intended to hasten the delivery of a stillborn, from The Midwives Book (1671) by Jane Sharp: "Take Oyl of worms, of Foxes, and of the Lillies of the Vallies, each alike, boyl a young blind Puppey in them, so long that his flesh part from the bones; then press froth all so strongly, and add to the straining, Styrax, Calamint, Benzoin, Opopanax, Frankincense, Mastik, of each one dram, a little Aqua Vitae, a little wax; mix them and make of them an Ointment; then let her drink often of this Potion following."

I mean, lest you get too rosy an impression of midwives.

In your discussion of the controversy over the "butcher cover" of the Beatles Yesterday... and Today [January 8], you mentioned that the design showing the mop tops draped in raw cuts of meat and holding decapitated dolls was an attempt to satirize the vapid cover art of the time. But this isn't really what the bloody motif was meant to represent. It was a protest by the Beatles directed at Capitol Records, their American record label. Capitol was in the habit of shaving tracks from the British LPs and hoarding them for another full album of "new" songs for American consumption in between "official" releases. The butcher cover was a statement against the greed of the American record label that "butchered" the Beatles' artistic integrity for the sake of commerce.

-- Robert Nelson, Salt Lake City, Utah

Some people claim to have heard this explanation from John Lennon. Maybe they did, but, if so, it's an explanation Lennon cooked up after the fact. As I explained before, the idea for the cover came from photographer Bob Whitaker, and the Beatles eagerly agreed to it. At the time Lennon reportedly said, "I especially pushed for it... just to break the image." That it did. To quote my assistant Jane, who has a "peeled" copy of the stereo version of the album -- that is, with the bland replacement cover photo peeled off -- "Eww."

Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver "The Straight Dope" on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago, IL 60611; e-mail him at cecil@chireader.com; or visit "The Straight Dope" area at America Online, keyword: Straight Dope.

 
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