Tag Archives: midwives

Mary Francis Webb

Mrs. Mary Webb was a midwife, one of the best known and most respected on Newfoundland’s west coast. She was also a healer using traditional Mi’kmaq medicines. She was a craftswoman. She farmed, raised animals, fished, hunted, trapped, and cut wood. She raised children and grandchildren.

midwife mary webb obit
Page 31, newspaper unknown. Click to enlarge.

Her first language was Mi’kmaq. In school, she learned English. From her Codroy Valley neighbours, she learned Scots Gaelic. As an adult living in Bay St. George, she learned French. These were the languages of early 20th century west coast Newfoundland. Her fluency meant she could speak with clients in their own language.

A “lay midwife”, Mary Webb had no formal training or accreditation. She started as an assistant and learned by experience. There were other midwives in Bay St. George: Susan Benoit and Emily Ann Paul in Flat Bay; Minnie Blanchard, Philomena Ryan and Philomena Sheppard in St. George’s; Rose Curnew in Stephenville Crossing. Formally trained midwives worked for the Grenfell Mission (see my Tempting Providence). Mrs. Webb was noteworthy for the great distances she travelled in her work. In all seasons at all hours, she went as far south as the Codroy Valley and north to Corner Brook and the Bay of Islands.

Midwife or doctor: social change

Until the mid-20th century, women in outport Newfoundland had their babies at home. The midwife arrived shortly before a woman’s due date and she or her assistant stayed for several days after the baby’s birth. A doctor was called if necessary. Emergencies happen, of course, so the midwife might be called early and she had to deal with complications if a doctor could not get there in time.

In the 1950s and ’60s, cottage hospitals, clinics and doctors’ offices opened in rural areas. More vehicles and new roads made travel to larger centres easier. Hospital births became the norm. Health care became professionalized. mary webb in kitchen, from her grandson FrankInformally-taught midwives and healers were longer central to it. Mrs. Webb was among the last generation of lay midwives in Bay St. George.

She passed on her knowledge of traditional medicines to those interested in learning. And she embodied being Mi’kmaw. Her fluency with the language and traditional skills, her pride in her heritage, her self-respect. All these things were noted by those who knew her. For those who were part of the Mi’kmaq cultural and political revitalization in the 1970s, Mrs. Webb was a reminder of who they were and what they were fighting for.

She was born in 1881 in the Codroy Valley, daughter of Ben François and Mary Young. In 1903 she married John Webb of Flat Bay in Bay St. George. He died about 1930. She remained in Flat Bay, with Norman Young as her life companion. She died June 3, 1978.

Tempting Providence TNL

If you’re near London Ont. you’ve got a couple days left to see a grand play at the Grand Poster for Grand Theatre's Tempting ProvidenceTheatre.  Tempting Providence, by Theatre Newfoundland and Labrador, runs until Friday March 31st.

It’s the story of Myra Bennett, a British nurse who came in 1921 to Newfoundland for a planned two years.  She married Angus Bennett from Daniel’s Harbour and stayed on the Northern Peninsula until she died in 1990 at the age of 100.  We saw the play several years ago in Cow Head, near where Mrs. Bennett lived.  My dentist, who knows nothing about Newfoundland or outpost nursing, saw it in London last week.  Like us, she loved it.

Tempting Providence  tells her story, but it’s really the story of all the nurses who looked after the health of those living in far-flung and isolated communities on Newfoundland’s west Myra Bennett from northernpeninsula.cacoast.  They did everything from birthing babies to surgery if need be.  Many, like Nurse Bennett, came from England.  Others were from Newfoundland and took nursing training in St. John’s.

In remote areas of the island, nurses were pretty much the entire medical system.  There were Grenfell Mission doctors based in St. Anthony and a few cottage hospitals, but the nurses scattered in small communities were those first called upon and sometimes the only source of medical help.  Today, we would call them nurse-practitioners in that they did much more than nurse training alone teaches.  Many stayed for their allotted time only but others, like Mrs. Bennett, stayed and nursed those who had become their neighbours and family throughout their lives.

Midwives and Healers

Mary Francis Webb, Flat BayThere were also local midwives and healers without formal education who learned by assisting someone more experienced.  Many local healers were Mi’kmaq, using barks, berries and animal parts in medicines.  Some were believed to be able to “charm” illness away.  Mary Francis Webb of Flat Bay was one of them.  Well-known and respected, she served a huge area extending way south of her Bay St. George community right up to Corner Brook.

Nurses, midwives and healers traveled anywhere any time they were needed.  They also raised children, grew gardens, tended animals and did all the work that other Newfoundland outport women did.  Some of the informally trained midwives supplemented their education with formal training if they could.  All worked with doctors, calling on them when they needed specialized skills.  But if the doctor couldn’t get there, they had to rely on their own skills.  Cecilia Benoit wrote Midwives in Passage about Newfoundland’s traditional and professional midwifery.

scene from Tempting ProvidenceTheatre Newfoundland and Labrador’s Tempting Providence conveys the hardship and the beauty of an outport nurse’s life – the place and the work.  It’s a lovely play, transporting you to the Great Northern Peninsula of a century ago with the use of a simple white sheet and talented actors.