Childbirth has always been associated with danger for the life and health for both mother and child. A number of complications may arise in the process. When the combined midwife school and birth clinic was established in Bergen in 1861, the vast majority of children were born at home, with family and friends to help them into the world.
Today people have much more knowledge about pregnancy and childbirth. We are also provided with competent midwives and physicians. Most women in our part of the world feel safe during their pregnancies. The infant mortality rate in Norway (stillborn infants and children who die during their first year) today is less than 0.8 %, and the mother mortality is 1 in 100,000. This was not the case in Bergen when “Bergen Fødselsstiftelse og Jordmorskole” (Bergen Birth Foundation and Midwife School) was established.
The first trained midwife arrived in Bergen in 1750. She was educated in Copenhagen and had been taken to Bergen by the Town Physician. But another century passed before Bergen could offer its citizens locally trained midwives, and a local birth clinic.
Established in 1861, the foundation was up and running the following year. It was located in a building on Rådstuplass, near the Town Hall. Approximately 80 children per year were born here in the course of the first 30 years. The clinic emplyed two physicians and one senior midwife in addition to the more regular medical staff.
Most babies were still born at home, but the number of births at the foundation increased year by year. By the turn of last century, 400 infants were on average born there annually. This increase may also be explained by a general population growth, and by the fact that women from a larger geographical area came to the foundation to give birth. There is also a theory that the foundation’s reputation improved among the women, along with a general decrease in home births.
In 1902-03 the foundation was restored and rebuilt, giving room for the increasing number of patients. The modernization allowed for an increased capacity, an operating theatre, electric lights and the luxury of hot and cold water in the patients’ rooms. The fact that poor, single women had to give birth to their children in the birth clinic of the Workhouse, became a public disgrace when the appalling sanitary conditions there became public knowledge. This facilitated new investments in the foundation and soon after the poor women also had modern, clean and professional surroundings when giving birth to their little ones.
According to the Norwegian national archive, the foundation helped approximately 7,000 children into the world during its first fifty years. The mothers’ mortality rate was 0.6 per cent. Childbed fever caused 75 per cent of these deaths. The infant mortality rate was 5.1 per cent. 877 midwives graduated from the foundation during these fifty years. The midwives were mostly single women, with only a few of them originally from Bergen. It seems that most of the women lived in different places in Western Norway, but we find students from Karasjok in the north to Kristiansand in the south.
In 1926, the Foundation was moved to the Women’s Clinic at Haukeland Hospital. The building was used as a bank for many years, but was eventually torn down in 1963.