Sarah Elizabeth Thomas Beach: Midwifery as a Calling
It is true that many early midwives found their profession by necessity with little or no training. Sometimes the nearest neighbor had to do when a baby was on its way. However, in September 1873, President Brigham Young saw the need for women to receive medical training, particularly in obstetrics and midwifery. The first woman to graduate medical school as a part of this effort was Dr. Ellis Shipp. She organized trainings throughout the Mormon settlements for women who were called and set apart as nurses and midwives. (You can read more about Dr. Ellis Shipp and her work in this post: Birth of an Early LDS OBGYN.)
Sarah Elizabeth Thomas Beach is one of the women who received this formal medical training. Sarah crossed the plains in utero and was born to English emigrants in Salt Lake City, Utah, in January 1853. Her father was a blacksmith and her mother was known to help others who were sick by using the herbs she had gathered and dried. Sarah likely learned this skill from her mother.
After marrying and having a family of her own she moved with her eight children to the area of Menan, Idaho, in 1886 where she began her work in midwifery. She travelled back to Salt Lake City to take part in one of Dr. Shipp’s trainings. They were not only taught to care for women during the childbearing cycle but also given basic medical skills training. She was taught to set bones, sew up a cut and take care of the sick. Her daughter, Eliza, recorded, “Nearly all her time was spent in caring for the sick going night and day, in all kinds of weather and all kinds of sickness. I heard my father say when she was dressing in the middle of the night with a cold wind blowing, ‘I hate to see you get up out of a warm bed and go out at this time of night.’” A midwife of her day did not have a car with heated seats, that’s for sure. She would have gone by buggy, horseback or even on foot. And sometimes she took her baby with her to a birth.
Sarah received a blessing in 1897 from the Apostle Francis M. Lyman. Her daughter recorded that the blessing was fulfilled, “To the day of her death her mind was keen, extra bright and many times in her practice as a midwife, I have heard her say how on many occasions in her practice when everything seemed to be against mother and child, she heard the prompting of the spirit, which had been promised her.” Her daughter, Eliza, witnessed their bishop testify that her mother had saved his wife’s life.
Across boundaries of religion, race, and status it seems that most midwives express having been called to it the work and inspired in their care. To one person it may be divine inspiration and to another intuition. Either way, it is an integral part of midwifery.
I did not find Sarah’s story on my own. It was given to me by one of her descendants, Vanessa, whom I met through a midwifery assistant training course. I asked for her thoughts about her ancestor and she shared, “I didn’t learn that my great, great grandmother, Sarah, was a church called midwife until a few years after I became interested in midwifery myself. I feel so proud of her and all she did to help bring spirits through the veil and take care of those who were earthside. It must have been a calling that required a sharp and inspired mind, gifted hands, and a loving a selfless heart. Talk about a woman with grit! She was also a mother of twelve, six of whom preceded her in death. Her time on earth certainly stretched and refined her as she answered God’s calling to be a wife, mother and a midwife. I asked that God would send her to be present at my recent homebirth, to guide the midwife and process if need be. It gave me peace of mind to imagine her in attendance. It might seem out there, but why wouldn’t our ancestors be interested in helping us, as we are in helping them?” Vanessa’s grandmother, Rachel, had fifteen children. As their grandmother and midwife, Sarah presided at fourteen of those births. And like Vanessa, I like to think she has continued to preside over births for her posterity.
(For more information on early medical and obstetrical training in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints you can read this post: Midwifery as a Calling.)