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Graduate student earns national recognition for her examination of midwifery

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Media Contact: Bridget Lewis

News Topics: awards, history, liberal arts, nursing, students

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A University of Texas at Arlington history graduate has been named the winner of the 2013 W. Curtis Worthington Jr. Research Paper Competition from the Waring Historical Library at the Medical University of South Carolina.


Jenny Luke researched how midwifery changed in America between 1920 and 1970. She found that, unlike her native England where the practice was a valued part of women’s health care, midwifery in the U.S. raised several race and economic questions and was considered unessential.

“Midwifery in America was seen as something to be eradicated. It’s always been a central and highly regarded part of health care in Britain,” Luke said. “My research exposes the role of the midwife during this period to be a valuable asset in the provision of good maternity care and also explores the experiences of African American women as health care providers.”

The paper “Asafetida to Aureomycin: African American Nurse-Midwives, 1930-1950,” was a chapter of her thesis “Catchin’Babies: African American Midwives, Maternity Care, and Public Health Debates in the Jim Crow South, 1920-1970.” She earned her master’s degree in May.

In some parts of the South, during the mid-20th century, Luke said that impressive improvements in maternity care were centered on maintaining and upgrading a midwifery service. She asserts that midwifery should be an important element of modern maternity care.

“Clearly, the growth of modern medicine and health care brought essential benefit to the desperately underserved population of the South,” Luke said. “It is absurd to argue otherwise. However, as an exercise in historical analysis, a case can be made that the dismissal of the value of midwifery proved to be ultimately detrimental to the standard of maternity care in the region. The juggernaut of scientific hegemony forced into obsolescence a model of care that held intrinsic value.”

She added: “It is inadvisable to approach the history of medicine with the intention of applying modern standards to the attitudes and assumptions of the past. However, no matter how absurd it may be to argue against the benefits of modern maternity care, it seems equally foolish not to consider what was lost, particularly at a time when the maternity care system is again failing black women. It seems that there is little to lose by turning to history to explore models of care, techniques, and treatments that may have been discarded a little too eagerly in the name of progress.”  

The former nurse and certified midwife said she was drawn to the topic through her graduate coursework and with encouragement from faculty members such as Stephanie Cole, associate professor in the UT Arlington Department of History.

“I took several of Dr. Cole’s race and gender classes,” Luke said. “I found the topic relevant because many poor women in America don’t have access to quality maternity care and this is reflected in the maternal and infant mortality rates.”

Luke began her nursing career in 1983 and joined Parkland Hospital in Dallas in 1990. She took time off to raise her family before pursuing a history degree at UT Arlington just a few years ago.

Cole called Luke’s work an important contribution to the scholarship on midwifery and to better understanding the history of this health care profession.

“Jenny’s research is important because she analyzes changes in midwifery in the context of the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights movement, and because she gives many previously-unheard women a voice in the historical record,” Cole said. “In the process, she gives public policy makers helpful insights to consider as they plan future directions for women’s health care.”

Luke will receive a $1,500 award during a ceremony next month in South Carolina and her paper will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of the South Carolina Medical Association. She will next focus on having her thesis published as a book.

The University of Texas at Arlington is a comprehensive research institution of more than 33,000 students and more than 2,200 faculty members in the heart of North Texas. It is the second largest institution in The University of Texas System. Visit to learn more.


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