What Are Newspapers Good For?

by John Derbyshire

Discussions of midwifery on the Corner are regrettably scarce. In my piece about tabloids in the current (August 15) National Review I mentioned the use of newspapers in childbirth, quoting from Richard Gordon’s 1952 novel Doctor in the House:

Newspaper, that was it! There was a pile of them in the corner, and I scattered the sheets over the floor and the bed. This was a common practice in the district, and if he knew how many babies were born yearly straight on to the Daily Herald Mr. Percy Cudlipp [the editor] would be most surprised.

This has excited some interest among readers. Writes one:

I once heard … that in the days before people much associated dirt with infection, it was noticed that puerperal fever (then considered a normal sequel to giving birth) rarely occurred where newspapers were spread on the bed of accouchement. The explanation — discovered later — was that the ink, which got all over the midwife’s hands, was antiseptic. Possible?

I couldn’t say, Sir. Richard Gordon only quotes this, from a handbook for medical students in obstetric situations: “The student must try to achieve sterile surroundings for the delivery, and scrub-up himself as for a surgical operation. Newspapers may be used if sterile towels are unobtainable, as they are often bacteria-free.” That’s a-septic, though, not anti-septic.

If anyone has further input I’ll post it. In the meantime, I’ve posted the entire midwifery chapter of Doctor in the House here for readers’ entertainment. The humor has held up well after 60 years.