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‘Drawing aside the curtain’: natural childbirth on screen in 1950s Britain



This article recovers the importance of film, and its relations to other media, in communicating the philosophies and methods of ‘natural childbirth’ in the post-war period. It focuses on an educational film made in South Africa around 1950 by controversial British physician Grantly Dick-Read, who had achieved international fame with bestselling books arguing that relaxation and education, not drugs, were the keys to freeing women from pain in childbirth. But he soon came to regard the ‘vivid’ medium of film as a more effective means of disseminating the ‘truth of [his] mission’ to audiences who might never have read his books. I reconstruct the history of a film that played a vital role in teaching Dick-Read's method to both the medical profession and the first generation of Western women to express their dissatisfaction with highly drugged, hospitalized maternity care. The article explains why advocates of natural childbirth such as Dick-Read became convinced of the value of film as a tool for recruiting supporters and discrediting rivals. Along the way, it offers insight into the British medical film industry and the challenges associated with producing, distributing and screening a depiction of birth considered unusually graphic for the time.

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1 Prendergast, Shirley and Prout, Alan, ‘The natural and the personal: reflections on birth films in schools’, British Journal of Sociology of Education (1985) 6, pp. 173183 ; Shorr, Lori, ‘Performing birth: the construction of female bodies in instructional childbirth videos’, Velvet Light Trap (1992) 29, pp. 314 ; Feasey, Rebecca, From Happy Homemaker to Desperate Housewives: Motherhood and Popular Television, London: Anthem Press, 2012, pp. 147176 .

2 Schaefer, Eric, ‘Exploitation as education’, in Orgeron, Devin, Orgeron, Marsha and Streible, Dan (eds.), Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 316337 ; Ostherr, Kirsten, Medical Visions: Producing the Patient through Film, Television and Imaging Technologies, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 113151 ; Strassfeld, Benjamin, ‘A difficult delivery: debating the function of the screen and educational cinema through The Birth of a Baby (1938)’, Velvet Light Trap (2013) 72, pp. 4457 .

3 Leavitt, Judith, Brought to Bed: Childbearing in America, 1750 to 1950, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986 ; Salim Al-Gailani, ‘Hospital birth’, in Nick Hopwood, Rebecca Flemming and Lauren Kassell (eds.), Reproduction: From Antiquity to the Present Day, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming.

4 Moscucci, Ornella, ‘Holistic obstetrics: the origins of “natural childbirth” in Britain’, Postgraduate Medical Journal (2003) 79, pp. 168173 ; Amanda-Jane Raphael, ‘Natural childbirth in twentieth-century England: a history of alternative approaches to birth, 1940s–1990s’, unpublished PhD dissertation, Queen Mary University of London, 2010, at

5 Michaels, Paula, Lamaze: An International History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014 ; Kline, Wendy, ‘Communicating a new consciousness: countercultural print and the home birth movement in the 1970s’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine (2015) 89, pp. 527556 ; Hopwood, Nick, Jones, Peter Murray, Kassell, Lauren and Secord, Jim, ‘Introduction: communicating reproduction’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine (2015) 89, pp. 379404 .

6 Michaels, Paula, ‘The sounds and sights of natural childbirth: films and records in antenatal preparation classes, 1950s–1980s’, Social History of Medicine (2017), advance access, doi: 10.1093/shm/hkw119; Leavitt, Judith Walzer, Make Room for Daddy: The Journey from Waiting Room to Birthing Room, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009, pp. 149152 .

7 On natural childbirth as ‘ideology’ see Cosslett, Tess, Women Writing Childbirth: Modern Discourses of Motherhood, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994, pp. 946 ; Moscucci, op. cit. (4).

8 Michaels, op. cit. (6).

9 On educational film see Orgeron, Orgeron and Streible, op. cit. (2). I have been able to reconstruct the history of Childbirth without Fear from Dick-Read's correspondence relating to the film, archived at the Wellcome Library, London (hereafter WL), files PP/GDR/C/18.1–4.

10 Dick-Read, Grantly, Natural Childbirth, London: William Heinemann, 1933 .

11 Dick-Read, Grantly, Revelation of Childbirth: The Principles and Practice of Natural Childbirth, London: William Heinemann, 1942 ; Dick-Read, , Childbirth without Fear, London: William Heinemann, 1944 .

12 Moscucci, op. cit. (4).

13 Nixon, William, ‘Childbirth and motherhood’, British Medical Journal (1950) 2, p. 1101 .

14 King, Laura, Family Men: Fatherhood and Masculinity in Britain, c.1914–1960, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015 .

15 For entry points into the literature on gender and the family in the postwar years see Thane, Pat, ‘Family life and “normality” in postwar British culture’, in Bessell, Richard and Schimann, Dirk (eds.), Life after Death: Approaches to a Cultural and Social History of Europe during the 1940s and 1950s, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 193210 ; Regulska, Joanna and Smith, Bonnie, Women and Gender in Postwar Europe: From Cold War to European Union, London: Routledge, 2012 ; Langhamer, Claire, The English in Love: The Intimate Story of an Emotional Revolution, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 10 . For discussions of how these values shaped attitudes to childbirth see Webster, Wendy, Imagining Home: Gender, Race and National Identity 1945–1964, London: Routledge, 2005, pp. 9294 ; Leavitt, op. cit. (6), pp. 86–119; Plant, Rebecca Jo, Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010 ; Davis, Angela, Modern Motherhood: Women and Family in England, 1945–2000, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012 ; Michaels, op. cit. (5), pp. 22–26.

16 Jeffcoate, Thomas, ‘Childbirth without fear’, British Medical Journal (1954) 2, p. 1532 .

17 Loughlin, Kelly, ‘Spectacle and secrecy: press coverage of conjoined twins in 1950s Britain’, Medical History (2005) 49, pp. 197212 ; Nathoo, Ayesha, Hearts Exposed: Transplants and the Media in 1960s Britain, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, pp. 3356 .

18 Thomas, A. Noyes, Doctor Courageous: The Story of Dr. Grantly Dick Read, London: William Heinemann, 1957, p. 87 .

19 Michaels, Paula, ‘Comrades in the labor room: the Lamaze method of childbirth preparation and France's Cold War home front, 1951–1957’, American Historical Review (2010) 115, pp. 10311060 ; Michaels, op. cit. (5), pp. 45–68.

20 Lecture to Die Niederrheinisch-Westfälische Gesellschaft für Gynäkologie und Geburtshilfe, 5 October 1957, WL PP/GDR/C/88.

21 Michaels, op. cit. (5), pp. 62–92.

22 Translation of article on Lamaze in the French communist-backed journal Les lettres françaises (1953) by Frank Bamping, WL GC/106/1.

23 Dick-Read to J.E. Maltby (G-B Equipments), 16 October 1957, WL PP/GDR/C/18.3.

24 Thomas, op. cit. (18).

25 On Rank see Macnab, Geoffrey, J. Arthur Rank and the British Film Industry, London: Routledge, 1993 .

26 Dick-Read to J. Arthur Rank, 22 November 1946; L.W. Oliver (Technicolor Ltd) to Dick-Read, 21 May 1946; and Eddie Albert to Dick-Read, 25 August 1948, WL PP/GDR/C/18.1.

27 Stanford, Brian, ‘The evolution of the medical film in Britain’, Canadian Medical Association Journal (1947) 57, pp. 385387 ; Boon, Timothy, ‘Medical film and television: an alternative path to the cultures of biomedicine’, in Jackson, Mark (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the History of Medicine, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 617634 .

28 Clark, Michael, ‘Audio-visual training materials in medicine’, in Dry, Chris (ed.), Film and Television in Education: The Handbook of the British Universities Film and Video Council, 2nd edn, London: Chapman and Hall, 1995, pp. 2129 , 23.

29 Dick-Read, Grantly, No Time for Fear, London: William Heinemann, 1955, p. xv .

30 Dick-Read to D.S. Garthorne, 5 May 1954, WL PP/GDR/C/18.1.

31 Scientific Film Association, Catalogue of Medical Films, rev. edn, London: Harvey and Blythe, 1952, pp. 5563 , 76–83.

32 Obstetrics and gynaecology on the screen’, The Lancet (1949) 253, pp. 11071108 .

33 The making of a good medical film’, The Lancet (1951) 257, pp. 517518 .

34 Dick-Read to J. Arthur Rank, 1 March 1954, WL PP/GDR/C/18.1.

35 The birth of a baby’, The Lancet (1940) 235, p. 325 , and (1947) 249, p. 877; Nicholas Hallam, ‘The censor seldom wins’, Daily Express, 9 September 1947, p. 2. On Birth of a Baby and its reception in the United States see Strassfeld, op. cit. (2); Schaefer, op. cit. (2), p. 188.

36 Quotation from letter in British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) file on the 1949 Danish film We Want a Baby, released in Britain in 1953, BBFC archive, London.

37 Maternity in Great Britain: A Survey of Social and Economic Aspects of Pregnancy and Childbirth Undertaken by a Joint Committee of the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and the Population Investigation Committee, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1948, pp. 2223 .

38 Nixon, William, ‘Antenatal care’, Health Education Journal (1948) 6, pp. 7174 ; Where mothers learn’, Health Education Journal (1957) 15, pp. 216222 .

39 Boon, Timothy, ‘Health education films in Britain, 1919–1939: productions, genres and audiences’, in Harper, Graeme and Moor, Andrew (eds.), Signs of Life: Cinema and Medicine, London: Wallflower, 2005, pp. 4557 .

40 Burton, John, ‘The film and public health’, Health Education Journal (1953) 11, pp. 182187 .

41 Burton, op. cit. (40), p. 183.

42 Killen, Andreas, ‘Weimar cinema between Enlightenment and hypnosis’, in Laffan, Michael and Weiss, Max (eds.), Facing Fear: The History of an Emotion in Global Perspective, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012, pp. 91113 .

43 Dick-Read, op. cit. (11), p. 69.

44 William Hickey, ‘Close-up of birth’, Daily Express, 9 February 1940, p. 4; Caulfield, Max, Mary Whitehouse, London: Mowbrays, 1975, p. 19 ; Crowther, Barbara, ‘The partial picture: framing the discourse of sex in the British educative films of the early 1930s’, in Sauerteig, Lutz and Davidson, Roger (eds.), Shaping Sexual Knowledge: A Cultural History of Sex Education in Twentieth-Century Europe, London: Routledge, 2009, pp. 176196 .

45 Editorial, Science and Film (1953) 1, pp. 1–2; Burton, op. cit. (40); Curtis, Scott, ‘Dissecting the medical training film’, in Braun, Marta, Keil, Charles, King, Rob, Moore, Paul and Pelletier, Louis (eds.), Beyond the Screen: Institutions, Networks and Publics of Early Cinema, New Barnet: John Libbey, 2012, pp. 161167 .

46 Dick-Read, op. cit. (11), p. 69; correspondence between Dick-Read and American filmmaker Leslie Shepard, February–March 1956, WL PP/GDR/C/24. For a similar view see ‘Problems of maternal mortality’, The Guardian, 29 April 1937, p. 14.

47 Dick-Read, Grantly, Childbirth without Fear, New York: Harper and Row, 1953, pp. ixx .

48 For a similar view see Editorial: moving pictures’, Health Education Journal (1955) 13, p. 68 .

49 Thomas, op. cit. (18), p. 208.

50 Dick-Read to J. Arthur Rank, 1 July 1954, WL PP/GDR/C/18.1.

51 Dick-Read to R.E. King (G-B Equipments, Ltd), 4 September 1954, WL PP/GDR/C/18.1.

52 Dick-Read, op. cit. (29).

53 Dick-Read to R.E. King, 9 November 1954, WL PP/GDR/C/18.1.

54 As Michaels, op. cit. (5), p. 21, has noted, didactic materials promoting the Read method positioned the mother as openly deferential to male medical authority, even as they touted women's agency.

55 A copy of the film is held at the British Film Institute archive (identifier no 15912).

56 ‘Why was this sex film cut?’, Daily Express, 24 May 1950, 7.

57 R.E. King to Dick-Read, 6 September 1954, WL PP/GDR/C/18.1.

58 R.E. King to Dick-Read, 16 November 1954, WL PP/GDR/C/18.1.

59 Dick-Read to J.E. Maltby, 20 August 1956, WL PP/GDR/C/18.3.

60 Thomas, op. cit. (18).

61 On the significance of language and mode of address see Karpf, Anne, ‘Constructing and addressing the “ordinary devoted mother”’, History Workshop Journal (2014) 78, pp. 82106 .

62 Editorial: moving pictures’, Health Education Journal (1955) 13, pp. 6869 ; Burton, op. cit. (40), p. 182. See also Field, Mary, ‘The film in education’, Health Education Journal (1944) 2, pp. 172175 .

63 Dick-Read to Otto Busse, 13 September 1957, WL PP/GDR/C/88.

64 Introductory text for Childbirth without Fear, Dick-Read to R.E. King, 2 August 1955, WL PP/GDR/C/18.2.

65 Dick-Read, ‘Physiological childbirth’, WL PP/GDR/C/18.1.

66 ‘Childbirth without Fear – notes’, WL PP/GDR/C/18.1.

67 Press cuttings of reviews of screenings from Nursery World, 21 April 1955; Nursing Mirror, 22 April 1955; Nursing Times, 22 April 1955; Parents, 22 June 1955, all in WL PP/GDR/C/133.

68 Shapira, Michal, The War Inside: From Collective to Domestic Citizenship, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013, pp. 112137 ; Karpf, op. cit. (61). On Cold War ‘mother love’ more generally see Plant, op. cit. (15); Vicedo, Marga, ‘Cold War emotions: mother love and the war over human nature’, in Solovey, Mark and Cravens, Hamilton (eds.), Cold War Social Science, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, pp. 233249 .

69 Dick-Read, op. cit. (65).

70 Dick-Read to J.E. Maltby, 20 August 1956, WL PP/GDR/C/18.3.

71 J.E. Maltby to GDR, 4 April 1956, WL PP/GDR/C/18.3.

72 Reviews in The Lancet (1955) 265, p. 1231; Medical Press, 4 May 1955, cutting in WL PP/GDR/C/133.

73 The Guardian, 10 February 1956, p. 7; Daily Sketch, 10 February 1956, cutting in WL PP/GDR/C/133.

74 Parents, 22 June 1955, original emphasis, cutting in WL PP/GDR/C/133.

75 ‘Study of natural childbirth’, The Times, 15 May 1956, p. 6.

76 Nursery World, 20 June 1957, cutting in WL PP/GDR/C/134.

77 Clifford Davis, ‘Birth of a baby – on TV’, Daily Mirror, 4 February 1957, cutting in WL PP/GDR/C/133.

78 Leman, Joy, ‘Programmes for women in 1950s British television’, in Baehr, Helen and Dyer, Gillian (eds.) Boxed In: Women and Television, London: Pandora, 1987, pp. 7395 ; Thumim, Janet (ed.), Inventing Television Culture: Men, Women and the Box, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004 .

79 Irwin, Mary, ‘What women want on television: Doreen Stephens and BBC television programmes for women, 1953–1964’, Westminster Papers (2011) 8, pp. 99122 .

80 ‘TV cameras in mothers’ ward’, Daily Express, 15 November 1956, p. 3.

81 Victoria Wegg-Prosser, ‘This Week in 1956: the introduction of current affairs on ITV’, in Thumim, op. cit. (78), pp. 195–206, 198; Ang, Ien, Desperately Seeking the Audience, London: Routledge, 1991 ; Holmes, Su, Entertaining Television: The BBC and Popular Television in the 1950s, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008 .

82 Daily Mirror, 5 February 1957, cutting in WL PP/GDR/C/133.

83 On Dimbleby and Panorama see Briggs, Asa, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom: Competition, vol. 5, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995, pp. 164165 . The critics were Anne Scott-James, woman's editor at the Sunday Express, and an obstetrician who, under strict professional conventions regarding doctor anonymity, remained unnamed.

84 Manchester Daily Express, 5 February 1957, cutting in WL PP/GDR/C/133.

85 Daily Sketch, 10 February 1956; Daily Sketch, 5 February 1957, cuttings in WL PP/GDR/C/133. On earlier attempts by the Sketch to orchestrate a moral backlash against sexual content in rival publications see Bingham, Adrian, ‘The British popular press and venereal disease during the Second World War’, Historical Journal (2005) 48, pp. 10551076 , 1063.

86 For instance, Daily Mirror, 5 February 1957, cutting in WL PP/GDR/C/133.

87 News Chronicle, 5 February 1957, cutting in WL PP/GDR/C/133.

88 ‘Birth film was sincerely presented’, Edinburgh Evening Dispatch, 18 February 1957, cutting in WL PP/GDR/C/134.

89 Manchester Daily Express, 5 February 1957; Birmingham Evening Dispatch, 5 February 1957, cuttings in WL PP/GDR/C/133.

90 Maurice Richardson, ‘Cupid and Charon’, The Observer, 10 February 1957, p. 11.

91 Mass-Observation film reports January 1937–December 1948, 17-4-F, Mass-Observation Online Archive.

92 Fisher, Kate, Birth Control, Sex, and Marriage in Britain, 1918–60, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 240 ; Bingham, Adrian, Family Newspapers: Sex, Private Life and the British Popular Press, 1918–1978, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009 ; Bingham, The “K-Bomb”: social surveys, the popular press, and British sexual culture in the 1940s and 1950s’, Journal of British Studies (2011) 50, pp. 156179 .

93 Exeter Express and Echo, 8 February 1957, cutting in WL PP/GDR/C/133.

94 ‘Father sees baby born on TV’, Daily Express, 17 July 1957, p. 7. BBC television, Your Life in Their Hands: Caesarean Section, 20 March 1963; Having Your Baby, ten-part series on maternity and baby care starting 11 October 1964.

95 BBFC file on We Want a Baby, letter to London and Overseas Film Services, 15 September 1958.

96 Transcript of BBC Panorama, ‘Natural childbirth’, 4 February 1957, in WL PP/GDR/C/18.3.

97 Parents, May 1957, pp. 20–22, March 1958, p. 39.

98 Parents, May 1957, p. 22.

99 Ann Friedrich, ‘I photographed my baby's birth’, Parents, January 1958, pp. 38–42.

100 Kitzinger, Jenny, ‘Strategies of the early childbirth movement: a case-study of the Natural Childbirth Trust’, in Garcia, Jo, Kilpatrick, Robert and Richards, Martin (eds.), The Politics of Maternity Care: Services for Childbearing Women in Twentieth-Century Britain, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990, pp. 92115 .

101 Moeller, Robert G., Protecting Motherhood: Women and the Family in the Politics of Postwar West Germany, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993 .

102 Dick-Read's correspondence with Dieter Fritko, February 1957–February 1958, WL PP/GDR/C/23.

103 Michaels, op. cit. (5), pp. 75–76; Kitzinger, op. cit. (100); Raphael, op. cit. (4).

104 Snaith, Linton and Coxon, Alan, Dick-Read's Childbirth without Fear: The Principles and Practice of Natural Childbirth, London: William Heinemann, 1968, p. 233 .

105 Suggestive lists in moving-image collection of Lamaze International, 1956–2010, MP-47.1-MP-47.13; Vt-112.1-Vt-112.8, Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library, Harvard University; and Flora Hommel Papers, Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University, Detroit.

106 Kitzinger, op. cit. (100).

I am grateful, for comments on drafts of this article, to Nick Hopwood, Paula Michaels, Ayesha Nathoo, Susie Russell and Elizabeth Smith, and to participants at the Reproduction on Film conference at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge. I thank the BBFC for granting permission to publish material from their archive. This research was supported by the Wellcome Trust through a strategic award in the history of medicine on the theme Generation to Reproduction (088708).


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