I was listening to a radio programme about hypnotism lat night and one segment mentioned Grantly Dick-Reed, the author of Childbirth Without Fear and one of the early advocates of natural childbirth and relaxation methods during labour. We had his book at home when I was growing up – my mother, let’s just say, had quite a lot of practice.
Dick-Reed appears to have been one of those individuals who was concerned with social reform and welfare in the days before we had such a thing as a Welfare State. He had some odd ideas, of course, including the belief that ‘primitive’ women feel no pain during childbirth. But he also displayed a great concern for the well-being of women during pregnancy and childbirth – his wife said that he saw childbirth as ‘a holy event’. He also worked among the poor of the East End. Here are two assessments of him, which make him seem not unusual among the professional classes of the time and also really quite human:
” [a] man of striking appearance and handsome presence . . . a brilliant speaker, expounding his views with a single minded enthusiasm which carried his audience with him . . . in private life . . . very gay and excellent company.” Those less enthralled with him mentioned Read’s flair for self-aggrandizement. One critic observed that Read rivaled James Dean, Liberace, and Elvis Presley in his ability to create mass hysteria and differed from them only in that his work preceded theirs and probably would last much longer. source
His is a fascinating tale – he picked a fight, essentially with the Soviet Union, through his involvement in a feud with Lamaze. The latter, a French pioneer of modern childbearing techniques, had been greatly inspired by the work of Soviet obstetricians who had developed their own methods of supporting women through’painless childbirth’. This was at a time when ‘painless’ childbirth vied with the established view that anaesthesia and other interventions such as forceps delivery were best for mother and baby. It was also a time when anaesthesia was greatly in demand by, of course, pregnant women.
An unlikely champion entered the debate: in 1956, Pope Pius XII published a statement in which he denied that there was anything in Catholic teaching which forbade pain relief – and also supported the notion of natural childbirth.
More than fifty years after Dick-Reed’s death, the National Childbirth Trust flourishes. Women have a range of choices over how much and what kind of support they might have in labour. Our television even shows rather graphic scenes of labour in One Born Every Minute. He might have been irritating, vainglorious and arrogant – but what a contribution he made. We should be grateful.