Monday, July 23, 2012

Mother Mourning: Childbed Fever in Tudor Times

Sandra Byrd

Black death.  The Great Pestilence. Plague. Sweating Sickness.  The very words themselves cause us to shudder, and they certainly caused those in centuries past to quake because they and their loved ones were often afflicted by those diseases.  But when we survey the physical ailments that afflicted sixteenth century women there is one death that caused the deepest fear among women: Childbed Fever, also known as Puerperal Fever and later called The Doctors' Plague.

Elizabeth of York
Childbed Fever victim
Medieval and Tudor medicine centered around both astrology and the common belief that all health and illness was contained in balance or imbalance of the four "humours" of bodily fluids: blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm.  Therefore, the letting of blood or sniffing of urine were common manners to address or diagnose illness.

Although it seems ludicrous to us today, this understanding of medicine had reigned supreme for nearly 2000 years, coming down from Greek and Roman philosophical systems.  It's been said that perhaps only 10-15% of those living in the Tudor era made it past their fortieth birthday.  Common causes of illness leading to death? Lack of hygiene and sanitation.

Dr Semmelweis
Decades  before the germ theory was validated in the late nineteenth century,  Hungarian physician Ignac Semmelweis noticed that women who gave birth at home had a lower incidence of Childbed Fever than those who gave birth in hospitals.  Statistics showed that, "Between 1831 and 1843 only 10 mothers per 10,000 died of Puerperal Fever when delivered at home ... while 600 per 10,000 died on the wards of the city's General Lying In Hospital."

Higher born women, those with access to expensive doctors, suffered from Childbed Fever more frequently than those attended by midwives who saw fewer patients and not usually one after another. 

In 1795 Dr. Alexander Gordon wrote, "It is a disagreeable declaration for me to mention, that I myself was the means of carrying the infection to a great number of women."   Although they did not realize it at the time, it was, in fact, the sixteenth century doctors themselves who were transmitting death and disease to delivering mothers because the doctors did not disinfect their hands or tools in-between patients. 

Kateryn Parr
Childbed Fever victim
Because illnesses are often transmitted via germs doctors (and busy midwives) could infect the young mothers one after another, most often with what is now known as staph or strep infection in the uterine lining.  Semmelweis discovered that using an antiseptic wash before assisting in the delivery of the mother cut the incidence of Childbed Fever by at least 90% and perhaps as much as 99%, but his findings were soundly rejected. 

Infected women had no antibiotics to stop the onslaught of familiar symptoms once they began: fever, chills, flu like symptoms, terrible headache, foul discharge, distended abdomen, and occasionally, loss of sanity just before death.

This kind of death was not only no respecter of persons, as mentioned above, it perhaps struck the highborn more frequently than the low born. In fact, fear of Childbed Fever is often mentioned when discussing Elizabeth I's reluctance to marry and bear children. In the Tudor era  Elizabeth of York, the mother of Henry VIII, died of Childbed Fever as did two of Henry's wives: Queen Jane Seymour and Queen Kateryn Parr.  Parr's deathbed scene is perhaps one of the most chilling death accounts of the century, beheadings included. 

Jane Seymour
Childbed Fever victim

Although Semmelweis was outcast from the community of physicians for his implication that they themselves were the transmitters of disease, ultimately, science and modern medicine prevailed.   Today, in the developed world very few of the newly delivered die due to Puerperal Fever.  Moms no longer need fear that the very act of bringing forth life will ultimately cause their own deaths and therefore can happily bond with their babies, instead.

To learn more about Sandra's Ladies in Waiting Series, set in Tudor England, please visit For blogs on England and English history, visit:


  1. Very interesting post.
    I'm reminded that both my mothers parents lost their mother's either shortly after giving birth or while pregnant. The time period would have been 1907-1911. Both my grandparents had little memory of their mother's, and were raised by their father's.

  2. I'm sorry for that, Annette. It does remind us that it wasn't very far back in history that many women had to fear childbearing. I would have died giving birth to my eldest, had it not been for modern medicine. Something to be grateful for!

  3. So true, June. I think it's especially chilling that the symptoms were so well known and severe that most post-partum mothers knew exactly what they had very shortly after it set in.

  4. The germ that causes puerperal fever is the same one that causes scarlet fever which used to have a very high mortality rate in children. I had a form of it after my youngest was born. It was an opportunistic infection which was not caught in hospital. I spiked a high temperature with chills and thank God for antibiotics.

  5. Historical point of view,today in modern technology we can determine sickness of person through series of test. Health should be our top priority over any other things. It is best to keep us healthy all the time by proper sanitation and hygiene this are the important things to do to keep us away from sickness.

    Joan @ Doctor Websites


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