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Vital Midwives

Merging modern medicine and West African traditions

Curators at the National Museum of African American History and Culture purchased this tintype at auction in 2014 because it provided rare visual evidence of a nineteenth-century black woman as a medical professional. Additional research uncovered a possible identification: Sarah Loguen Fraser (1863-1933), an African American female doctor—one of only about 115 in the nation in the 1890s. Loguen Fraser educated black midwives to integrate modern medical knowledge into their traditional routines.  

Until the early twentieth century, midwives, not male doctors, assisted at most births in the United States. In the North, most were immigrant European women; in the South, African American women assisted at both black and white births. These black midwives saw their work as a sacred duty that sustained intergenerational gender and community cohesion by employing time-honored practices derived from West African traditions.

Although the white medical establishment began a campaign to replace midwifery in the late nineteenth century, African American midwives still delivered as many as half of the black babies born in some southern states in the 1950s.

—William S. Pretzer, Senior Curator, National Museum of African American History and Culture

Tintype of a woman carrying a medical bag

Object Details

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National Museum of African American History and Culture Collection
Classification
Media Arts-Photography
Date
1890s
Object number
2014.37.14
Caption
The woman in this occupational tintype is unidentified, but she bears a strong resemblance to Dr. Sarah Loguen Fraser (1850-1933). An 1876 graduate of Syracuse University College of Medicine, Fraser became the fourth African American female doctor in the United States. She was one of the first female doctors to specialize in obstetrics and pediatrics and was a mentor to black midwives throughout her career.
Description
A tintype occupational portrait of a woman, likely a doctor or possibly a nurse or midwife, carrying a medical bag. The woman is standing tall at the center of the image, looking directly at the camera. She carries a medical bag in her proper left hand. She wears a dark-colored top hat, a two-layered ruffled waist-length cape, a bow tied at the neck, dark-colored gloves, and a long skirt. She is posed in a studio setting, in front of a landscape backdrop.
Credit Line
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Photograph by
Unidentified
Subject of
Unidentified Woman or Women
Topic
African American
Medicine
Midwifery
Photography
Women
Place collected
United States, North and Central America
Medium
collodion and silver on iron with lacquer
Dimensions
H x W: 3 3/8 × 2 3/8 in. (8.6 × 6 cm)
Data Source
National Museum of African American History and Culture
Restrictions & Rights
Public Domain
Type
tintypes
portraits
GUID
http://n2t.net/ark:/65665/fd50c6be7df-d629-4de0-b099-ffbfc30a7b58
Record ID
nmaahc_2014.37.14

Tintype of a woman carrying a medical bag

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