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WSU nursing professor’s book offers glimpse at life of early 1900s midwife

Friday July 11, 2014
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Susan Fleming, RN
“I started writing this story in my mind when I was 10 years old,” said Susan Fleming, RN, BSN, MN, PhD, about her published book, “Seattle Pioneer Midwife: Alice Ada Wood Ellis – Midwife, Nurse & Mother
to All.”

Alice, the story’s protagonist, is based on Fleming’s great-grandmother, a single mom and midwife in early Seattle. Fleming credits her grandmother for sharing many of Alice’s stories and also launching her own journey toward nursing. “Alice is the reason I became a mom and baby nurse,” Fleming said.

Fleming is an assistant professor at Washington State University College of Nursing in Spokane, Wash., where she teaches nursing foundations, ethics and the senior practicum. She also is a certified perinatal clinical nurse specialist; her work and writing intersect both personally and professionally.

Fleming was starting work on her PhD in 2008 when she realized Alice’s story was significant and needed to be told. “I decided I didn’t want Alice’s stories to be lost because people I shared them with told me they were
so inspiring.”

Every birthing story in the book is factually based, either from Alice’s experiences as passed down by Fleming’s grandmother, or through situations Fleming had as a perinatal nurse and a mother of four children. She also pulled her husband, Edward, into the process, distilling some of his experiences as a certified nurse anesthetist. She said he contributed factual details. “I hadn’t experienced many women or babies dying (in childbirth), so I asked him for those details. Back in Alice’s time, (perinatal death) was an everyday occurrence.”

While the stories are based on her great-grandmother’s experiences, the book is a fictional account. Fleming said integrating facts with fiction was difficult because she “didn’t want to mess with history.” To create authentic settings and details, Fleming researched Seattle in the 1900s. For example, she visited train stations where scenes took place, using the actual times of train departures a century ago, and found train names and descriptions of the settings. The fiction comes in where she created dialogue between characters.

Fleming believes the book has as much story value as it does significance for nursing history. She said Alice considered herself a nurse, but she completed only one year of a two-year nursing school in Milwaukee. Fleming said nurse-midwifery was just beginning to develop as a profession when her great-grandmother started caring for mothers.

“In 1873 there were only three professional nursing programs in this country. By 1900, there were 400,” Fleming said.

In Alice’s time, she said nursing schools didn’t address obstetrics except in cases of emergencies. “(Training in OB) came about slowly,” she said. “Public health nurses became nurse midwives because (giving birth) was a public health concern.” Fleming discovered that in the 1920s, the only place formally trained nurse midwives existed was in Britain.

For greater historical accuracy, Fleming pored over newspaper articles from the 1900s. Some of the photos in the book are from collections at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry and the University
of Washington.

Fleming has already begun writing the prequel, in which she anticipates sharing mostly fictional stories. “I’m using my family again as the basis; I loved learning so much about my family while researching this first book.”

RN, author offers tips for other nurse writers

Author Susan Fleming’s first piece of advice for prospective authors is to start with a true story. “Truth is stronger than fiction,” she said.

“Use your own family,” she said. “So many nurses have told me, since they read my book, that they should have listened more to their grandmother’s stories.”
She also suggests:

Search newspaper articles for historical data; you’d be surprised what you will find. Fleming uses geneologybank.com.

Know the medical jargon for the time era you’re investigating. Fleming unsuccessfully searched for “Birth Home” or “Birthing Home,” but discovered plenty of 1900s-era info when she typed in “Confinement Home.”


Karen Schmidt, RN, is a freelance writer. Post a comment below or email editorWest@nurse.com.