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Maternal and Infant Mortality

The deaths of mothers and babies in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Canada aroused great concern among women’s groups, urban reformers and progressive politicians such as Newton Rowell. In April 1919, he informed the House of Commons that Canada’s infant mortality statistics compared poorly with those of other British dominions such as New Zealand and Australia. With rates ranging from a low of 91.2 infant deaths per 1,000 population in Saskatchewan to a high of 153.4 per 1,000 in Quebec, Canadian provinces did not match New Zealand with 50 per 1,000 or Australia with 68 per 1,000. Even London, England with 89 per 1,000 was better than any Canadian city at protecting the lives of its babies. The new federal Department of Health created a Division of Child Welfare and hired Dr. Helen MacMurchy, one of Canada’s first women doctors and famous for her reports to the Ontario government on infant mortality, to direct a national educational campaign to lower infant and maternal deaths. She created a series of pamphlets, which were distributed by doctors, women’s groups, the Victorian Order of Nurses and the Red Cross to pregnant women or sent directly to women who wrote to the department for information.

Photo: This large maternity pavilion opened at the Vancouver General Hospital in 1929

This large maternity pavilion opened at the Vancouver General Hospital in 1929. The scale of the building reflects two changes: more women chose to give birth in a hospital, and hospitals had become “medical workshops” staffed by experts.
City of Vancouver Archives, Bu N244.2

At the 1927 Medical Services Conference, MacMurchy reported on a study of maternal mortality conducted in response to a request from the 1924 conference for information about the causes of maternal deaths and ways to prevent them. Using statistics collected in 1925–1926, MacMurchy uncovered a total of 1,532 deaths or “over 4 maternal deaths a day.” Most doctors concluded that lack of prenatal care was to blame, but MacMurchy pointed out: “The economic factor comes into this question. It is not unusual for us [the federal Department of Health] to receive letters from parents who have not been able to pay the doctor’s account for services rendered at the last child’s birth and are ashamed to ask him to come again, asking ‘What are we to do?’” (“Maternal Mortality Survey,” Second Conference on Medical Services in Canada, House of Commons, March 28th, 29th, 30th, 1927 [Ottawa: F. A. Acland, King’s Printer, 1928], pp. 146–49). Gradually, childbirth moved out of the home and into the hospital and, during the 1930s, some cities began to experiment with prenatal clinics. However, it was not until the 1950s that maternal mortality rates began to decline significantly. Infant mortality was still a challenge in less wealthy provinces until the 1970s, and it remains a problem today in northern Canada and on First Nation reserves.

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    Date Created: March 31, 2010 | Last Updated: April 21, 2010