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

Photograph by
Subject of
Unidentified Woman or Women
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.
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.
Place collected
United States, North and Central America
African American
Black Enterprise
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National Museum of African American History and Culture Collection
Photographs and Still Images
Credit Line
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Data Source
National Museum of African American History and Culture
Object number
Restrictions & Rights
Public Domain
Proper usage is the responsibility of the user.
collodion and silver on iron with lacquer
H x W: 3 3/8 × 2 3/8 in. (8.6 × 6 cm)
Record ID