Pestilence, Potions, and Persistence Early Florida Medicine


Until the first decades of the 20th century, most of the children born in the South—and nearly all born in the rural South—were delivered by midwives. Sometimes family friends, sometimes acknowledged experts in the community, and often both, midwives provided essential medical care to isolated or impoverished communities. However, in less than 70 years, independently operating midwives were all but gone.

Peggy Smith, Granny Midwife

Peggy Smith was a granny midwife working in Quincy, Florida. In this letter, she tried to explain how doctors in the community respected her. She had worked as a midwife for years, and asked earnestly, through broken English in a handwritten note, for the governor to confirm her officially and to ask the doctors of Quincy about her qualifications.

Significantly, Smith sent this request to the governor in 1905, nearly 30 years before the state began a midwife certification program. "Granny" midwives had received recognition by prominent members of their own communities, including physicians, in the past, but the state did not consider official certification for several more years.

Letter from Dr. W. S. Stevens in Support of Peggy Smith

This letter from Dr. W. S. Stevens of Quincy, Florida, communicates the support of a qualified physician for the certification of Peggy Smith as a midwife. Smith had petitioned the state government for certification, and Stevens, the physician she had assisted in delivery, confirmed her competency.

Granny Midwife Isabelle Maynor Requests a "Replacement License" from State Health Officer

In a letter written directly to Dr. J. Y. Porter, the State Health Officer, a midwife in Martin, Florida, Isabelle Maynor, asks again for a replacement license to practice her trade.

This request, written in 1909, anticipated the state certification program by more than two decades.

In response, state officials had to turn down her request, being unable to fulfill it, but also asked where she received her first license.

Response to Granny Midwife Isabelle Maynor
Isabelle Maynor

Response to Granny Midwife Isabelle Maynor

The State Board of Health continued to receive requests for certification from midwives in the decades before the certification program actually began, as well as from doctors and health officials who assumed that there must have been some sort of program in place before.

Confusion about Certification

Physicians and health officials from different areas assumed, like midwives, that there must have been a certification program in place for midwives in the decades before the State Board of Health pursued the program.

This short letter expresses one official’s confusion, since they had received another request from an “old midwife” for a replacement for her lost license.

In response to requests for certification from midwives and the confusion of physicians and state officials, Dr. J. Y. Porter, Florida State Health Officer, clarified the Board of Health's position that there had never been a statewide certification program.