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Charlotte Gibson: a community’s midwife

Charlotte Gibson: a community’s midwife

Charlotte Gibson, nee Charlotte Augusta Purdee (1839 – 1910) is known not only as a founder of Gibsons Landing but as a skilled midwife and nurse. The details of Charlotte’s birth and background in the U.S. are contested, but we know that she married George Gibson in 1859 at age 19 and moved to Ontario. By the time she arrived in Gibsons Landing in 1886 she had given birth to eight children. 

The Sunshine Coast Museum and Archives currently displays a glass oil lamp of turquoise blue inset with pressed flowers which Charlotte Gibson brought with her from Ontario. Its value rests not only in its translucent beauty but the fact that several babies were born with the help of its light. The BC Archives hold 40 registered births on the Sunshine Coast between 1889 and 1903. Thirty-three of these birth registrations have been scanned and digitized for public view. These 33 documents detail such information as the birthweight and medical attendant present. Of these 33 births, Mrs. Gibson is listed as midwife to 15 births – eight of which were her own grandchildren. (Charlotte’s daughter “Lottie” McCombs is also recorded as a midwife.) Only four of the 33 births were attended by a physician, and six had no medical attendant present. If these 33 documents are to be taken as a representative sampling of the 40 total registered births in the early settler period, it is clear that Charlotte was an active midwife in the community.

Charlotte Gibson, left, one of the first midwives on the Coast, with her daughter Nellie Patterson and granddaughter Grace Glassford in a 1908 photo. Grace, on the right, was the first settler born in Gibsons. SCMA photo #317

Like Charlotte, many women in the Victorian era put their child-birthing skills to work as midwives. The other professions open to women not raising large broods of children included teaching, nursing, domestic service and dressmaking. In rural settlements like the Sunshine Coast, the services of a midwife were most likely remunerated through the barter system. It is said that Charlotte utilized a medical resource book, which has sadly not survived the ages.

Florence Nightingale was the first to open a school for midwifery in 1861. The Florence Nightingale Faculty of Nursing, Midwifery & Palliative Care at King’s College, London England still operates today. Midwives traditionally presided over births which took place at home alongside female relatives and neighbours. Though a respected profession in Charlotte’s day, midwifery experienced a sharp fall in status coincident with the growing medicalization of birth. Here birth was seen as an illness necessitating hospital intervention, rather than an intimate natural process best supported with holistic consideration of mind, body and spirit. It wasn’t until the 1960s that midwifery regained social acceptance through feminist interest in women-supported home births. By the 1990s most Canadian provinces began to regulate and integrate midwifery into the public health-care system. No longer maligned and marginalized, midwives have been fully incorporated into mainstream maternity care.

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