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The Legacy of Dr. Lamaze: The Story of the Man Who Changed Childbirth

The Legacy of Dr. Lamaze: The Story of the Man Who Changed Childbirth

by Caroline Gutmann, Bruce Benderson (Translator)

"In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children," commands the Bible, and for centuries childbirth pain was judged woman's inescapable burden. Then in the 1950s arrived a revolutionary new technique for dealing with it, named for its inventor and tireless promoter, a French doctor named Fernand Lamaze. Lamaze proposed a simple yet radical way by which women could not


"In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children," commands the Bible, and for centuries childbirth pain was judged woman's inescapable burden. Then in the 1950s arrived a revolutionary new technique for dealing with it, named for its inventor and tireless promoter, a French doctor named Fernand Lamaze. Lamaze proposed a simple yet radical way by which women could not only ease their labor but also take control over it. The rest is obstetrical history. For half a century, Lamaze's "painless childbirth method" has been employed in hospitals and clinics worldwide.

Yet to millions "Lamaze" remains just that-a method, a technique, even a brand name, rather than a figure of flesh and blood. Caroline Gutmann, Lamaze's granddaughter, brings him to life in this remarkable book. Through her exclusive access to her family's papers and letters. Gutmann lovingly but honestly pieces together the story of her famous grandfather, showing how and why he struggled to make childbirth safe.

It was a struggle that foreshortened his own life. Though often associated-rightly or wrongly-with "natural" childbirth, the Lamaze Method was born into controversy. Introduced during the height of the cold war, it was to some a godless Communist plot to undermine Western tradition (Lamaze had gotten his inspiration from Soviet medicine and from the work of Ivan Pavlov). In France and elsewhere, the medical establishment-and almost exclusively masculine domain-saw it as a threat, for it wrested power from the obstetricians and gave it to women.

The controversy continues. Today some argue that the wondrous epidural has made the Lamaze Method quaintly irrelevant: others, believing that childbirth has become dehumanized-a procedure rather than a process-argue that the method is essential. Derided or embraced, Lamaze's legacy remains key. When women use breathing exercises to control the pain of uterine contractions, and when men stand by them in the delivery room (Lamaze was the first to insist that their presence was crucial), they are invoking him and his work.

The Legacy of Dr. Lamaze is an intimate portrait of a passionate, courageous, and contradictory man who forever changed the way children are born.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This well-documented and highly detailed biography reads like a beautiful novel. Caroline Gutmann has magnificent talent as a writer." —Le Monde

"An objective investigation, stirring, that underlines the contradictions and paradoxes of this ambivalent man." —Elle

"A marvelous document, the portrait of a charismatic, tender man whose life is a novel." —Marie-France

Publishers Weekly
Casual perusal of family photos led Gutmann, the publicity director for French publisher Fayard, to diaries, aging family friends and, finally, the hospital where her grandfather suffered a fatal heart attack as she pieced together this first biography of Dr. Fernand Lamaze (1891-1957). A holy figure to generations of childbirth progressives, Lamaze was far from saintly in his personal life. Fond of drink and prostitutes, he even installed one of his many mistresses in the family home. Yet the same man risked his career to bring "painless childbirth" from Soviet Russia to France and then to the world. Gutmann makes sense of this apparent paradox by seeing life through her grandfather's eyes, mindful of his class and times. His Belle Epoque philandering comes to seem minor compared to his core mission to assist women in childbirth. American activists, who tend to view the overthrow of midwives by doctors as a setback to women's control over their bodies, may find Lamaze's story instructive. In France, midwives and the Catholic Church preached that the pain of childbirth and the risk of death were a "blood tax" owed by women for Eve's transgression. Lamaze's method, which offered women control over their own labor, made him an anti-establishment doctor. Gutmann fills in the historical gaps with conjectural passages that may annoy purists, as may the nonlinear narrative and overall partisan tone, but those interested in the history of medicine and women's issues will find this account enjoyable and valuable. 8-page photo inset, not seen by PW. (Aug.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Gutmann, publicity director for the Fayard publishing house in Paris, has written a loving tribute to the grandfather she never knew, the French physician who developed the technique of natural childbirth that bears his name. With a granddaughter's special access to family memories and privately held documents, she pieces together little-known details of Lamaze's turbulent personal and professional life. Unfortunately, Gutmann is more of a hagiographer than biographer. She slights the lengthy history of the natural childbirth movement and hints with little evidence of conspiracies to discredit Lamaze's work. Her detailed re-creations of long-ago conversations, motivations, and events would be more appropriate in fiction than biography. Libraries looking for an objective history of childbirth practices, including natural childbirth, should consider instead Donald Caton's What a Blessing She Had Chloroform: The Medical and Social Response to the Pain of Childbirth, 1800 to the Present (LJ 5/15/99). Kathy Arsenault, Univ. of South Florida at St. Petersburg Lib. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An unexpectedly engrossing portrait of Fernand Lamaze and the road he took to make universal his method of painless childbirth, fashioned in novelistic style by his granddaughter Gutmann. Working from interviews, family documents, letters, diaries, and notebooks, Gutmann has drawn an intriguing picture of Lamaze, starting with his move from Nancy to Paris as a young medical student and following him through the absinthe-and-brothel nights that preceded his years in the army, his service in WWII, and his return to Paris and subsequent marriage to Louise. Penury forced Lamaze to abandon the study of neurology and take up obstetrics. Although he became a notorious philanderer, his heart was clearly in the right place as far as his work was concerned, and he financed his treatment of poor and working-class women through the success of his growing practice among the city's wealthy. Gutmann is plainly fascinated by Lamaze's extramarital activities-at one point the good doctor had a several mistresses living in his apartment building (and dining at his table) at the same time, because he preferred to be honest about the whole situation-but Lamaze's conviction that the pain of childbirth could be all but eliminated without chemical intervention is the story's focus. Hints came to Lamaze when he learned that women in Hawaii actually gave birth with a smile on their lips; he also discovered that in the Soviet Union a painless-birthing technique was being developed that took its cues from the research into reflexive conditioning of Pavlov and Velvoski. Petty rivalries in the medical profession slowed him, as did the Cold War-but Lamaze's greatest obstacle was the deeply held belief that sufferinghad to attend childbirth: So inoculated for generations, women inevitably created a uterine contraction that was painful. Gutmann also makes it clear that the Lamaze method is not an easy six-step technique, but a pregnancy-long humanistic process involving the doctor, midwife, and partner-and that insurance companies are not prepared to pay for. A revelatory look into Lamaze writ large-the man and the arduous process that gave birth to his pain-reducing approach. (8-page b&w photo insert)

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.44(w) x 9.08(h) x 0.89(d)

Read an Excerpt


The Institute

WHEN HE MOVED INTO the Institute for the Deaf and Dumb on the evening of November 7, 1910, Fernand Lamaze felt strangely uneasy, though he would admit that everything had gone according to plan. The director was both a little condescending and cordial—appropriate in the relations between a supervisor and a subordinate. Fernand was immediately shown to the dormitory; it would be his job to keep an eye on the fifty or so students between 8:30 in the evening and 5:30 in the morning. He patted his cot; it was firm but not hard. The location of the building was ideal for his purposes—near the medical school, in other words. He was deeply impressed by its great historical significance: it had been built on the very site of the former residence of the renowned commander of Saint Jacques du Haut-Pas and next door to the church that housed the bones of the great Saint Magloire. Fernand knew his French history, and here he was living in it. Last, and most important, this night job would pay fairly well, helping him meet medical school expenses.

Despite all this, Fernand was still uneasy. Perhaps it had something to do with the moans and strange guttural sounds the little deafmutes made in their sleep. During his first night at the institute, he had been awakened several times and gone out to investigate. He had stared at the distorted faces of children, awake or asleep, vainly trying to communicate. Unable to get back to sleep, he had gotten up again, drenched in sweat, feeling as though he could not breathe. A child had wet his bed and was crying. Fernand changed the sheets and held thechild until he quieted down. The dormitory reeked of disinfectant and urine. Fernand moved unsteadily toward the window, each step making the floor creak and sending up a small cloud of dust. Over the beds hung large crucifixes, which didn't manage to hide the cracks in the walls. Everywhere was misery and austerity. He looked outside.

The buildings of the institute looked majestic in the moonlight. The hundred-foot-high elm, planted in the courtyard by the monks of SaintMagloire in 1572, scattered the light along the walls. Fernand felt intensely that he was out of his element. He ought never have come to this strange, hostile world. He should have stayed home and become a humble teacher like his father. Here, even the silence was different—it had a different weight and density, enfolding sounds that could not be heard, only felt. The clock had not yet struck four, and the night seemed endless.

Suddenly Fernand heard footsteps in the courtyard below and peered down into the darkness. A shadow appeared at the door to the church and then disappeared behind the elm. He wondered if it were an optical illusion brought on by exhaustion. Who could possibly be out there at this time of night? Moments passed, until again he heard the sound of gravel being crunched underfoot. The door of the penitentiary wing of the institute, the place where problem students or patients were housed, opened with a creak. A figure hurried inside.

At five in the morning, the clock tower tolled, the signal for the staff to wake up and begin the day. A few minutes later the students were awakened by vibrations in the floor. Fernand felt exhausted by his nearly sleepless night. The children seemed restless and got dressed quickly, with large, abrupt movements, under the watchful eye of M. Rodolphe, the floor supervisor.

"Hey, you, stop daydreaming. Get moving or you'll miss prayers."

Fernand turned, surprised by the voice. It belonged to a young woman, barely eighteen, her face half covered by badly cut bangs. She was dressed like a streetwalker in a pleated black skirt and red blouse that was opened to reveal her tiny breasts.

Her name, he learned, was Mlle Lison, a maid who had been working at the institute for a year. Her impish face and sharp tongue, rare for girls in her situation, had earned her the reputation among the kitchen staff of being "quite the spicepot," despite her bad teeth, raw-looking bones, and sallow complexion.

She moved behind Fernand's bed, ripped off the sheets, and began to shake them out. She gave off a musky odor that made his head throb. Her "fallen woman" gaze was focused on this hayseed student supervisor staring at her, his mouth agape.

"Stop staring at me as if I were naked."

Beet-red, Fernand confusedly lowered his head and hurried out of the dormitory, hoping that M. Rodolphe hadn't noticed the encounter.

The children were assembled in the hallway leading to the cafeteria, standing before the chaplain. Gesticulating and grimacing, they were engaged in the curious spectacle of praying together in sign language.

Feeling awkward, Fernand stayed to one side, until the abbot motioned him over to join the group. Then the abbot began to speak in unctuous tones, translating the hand gestures for the new arrival.

Fernand was instinctively uncomfortable in the company of this man. With his wide square shoes and threadbare cassock, he conformed to the image of a country priest. But something about his prying, insinuating eyes reminded you that the habit did not always make the monk.

"It is a great pleasure to welcome among us Fernand Lamaze, who has the difficult job of watching over you while you sleep. His duty will be to monitor you right up to the moment of your dreams and to keep evil away from them.

"Not being able to hear does not shelter you from sin, and you have special needs in terms of instruction in the truths of the catechism. It is God you must listen to, and if you can't hear with your ears, your heart will do the job for you."

A great believer in his own rhetoric, the abbot carefully enunciated his words, accentuating the strong points with his little chubby hands, which he used with the virtuosity of an orchestra conductor. Fernand noticed that his manicured nails were painted pink.

"And now we come to serious matters," the priest continued in his syrupy, monotonous voice. "You know how important I think discipline is, since it especially ensures your soul's salvation.

"Truly, as a tiny army in the service of God, you must obey the rules with military rigor. Each section of the class is a squadron with its own corporal. Every class has its sergeant. And I, your humble commandant, will guide your steps, direct your actions, uplift your soul. What happens when a grain of sand jams the works of that lovely machine devoted to God? Chaos follows, fiasco rules, and the Devil enters through the cracks of disorder.

"Yesterday evening, one of you had escaped my vigilance and refused to comply with the punishments I had meted out to him in the privacy of the confessional. There were no marks on his white body, despite his claiming to have followed my precepts and inflicted penitence on himself, morning and evening. Physical pain is still the only way to stamp out sin and steady the soul. By disobeying, your peer allowed himself to be taken over by evil. But he also put you in peril, especially since, I repeat, the least infraction shatters divine harmony and engenders evil.

"I've reflected deeply about which sanctions to adopt. I could have been easy on the guilty one by depriving him of recreation and walks, put him on bread and soup, or imposed the cure of silence. But gangrene is highly dangerous and can't be permitted to spread. That's why I've decided to separate the subversive element from you for a specified period.

"Blaise, you know whom I'm talking about. Leave your little friends and follow me."

A young boy in a gray shirt crept forward, pale with fear.

He had a helmet of blond curls, an extremely delicate face. More than one young girl would have envied his translucent skin, his wide violet eyes, and the dimple in his chin that gave him a mischievous air.

"Come here, Blaise. Don't be afraid. I do not wish you any harm."

The terrified child raised his head and fixed his eyes on the chaplain, who smilingly caressed his hair. Then he placed his thick hand on the boy's shoulder and gently pushed him toward the exit. Impelled by the priest's massive silhouette, the child seemed resigned to his fate. With tiny steps he left the room, never looking back.

Lamaze remembered the ogres and elves that had peopled his childhood. With a sickening feeling in his stomach, he watched them disappear into the darkness of the corridor.

Excerpted from The Legacy of Doctor Lamaze by Caroline Gutmann. Copyright © 1999 by Jean-Claude Lattes.
Translation copyright © 2001 Bruce Benderson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Caroline Gutmann lives with her son and husband in Paris, where she is publicity director of the publishing house Fayard.

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