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Bourgeois, Louise (1563–1636)

Bourgeois, Louise (1563–1636)

French midwife and medical writer. Born in 1563 near Paris (France); died in 1636 in France; married Martin Boursier (a barber-surgeon); children: three.

The works of French midwife and writer Louise Bourgeois were accepted and used as the leading texts on gynecology and obstetrics for many years after their publication. Little is known about Bourgeois' childhood except that she was born near Paris into a middle-class family and was trained to earn a living as a lace-maker. She married Martin Boursier as a young woman; a barber-surgeon, Boursier worked in Paris and was also an assistant to Ambroise Pare, head surgeon of the Hôtel Dieu in Paris. From her husband and Pare, Bourgeois learned anatomy and the fundamentals of surgical practice. Finding herself drawn to the field of medicine, she gave up lace-making and was apprenticed to a Parisian midwife. By 1593, Bourgeois had established herself as a talented midwife, gaining a widespread reputation for her skill and learning. In 1601, she reached the apex of the midwife's profession, becoming in that year the royal midwife to the queen, Marie de Medici , while maintaining her own private practice.

Between 1593 and 1609, Bourgeois supervised close to 2,000 births, while acquiring experience and practical training unsurpassed in Europe. She believed it important for her to catalog her knowledge for the use of other women in her profession and so authored three texts on midwifery, gynecology, and obstetrics. The first work was published in three parts, between 1609 and 1626. Entitled Various Observations on Sterility, Miscarriage, Fertility, Confinements, and Illnesses of Women and Newborn Infants, this book became a standard text for midwives. With information on almost every aspect of pregnancy and childbirth, from signs of pregnancy to inducing

labor to choosing a wet nurse, Observations was based on Bourgeois' practical experience but included some of the pseudo-scientific medical theories popular in her time.

Her second midwifery work, True Account of the Birth of the Ladies and Gentlemen, the Children of France, covering her supervision of the births of Queen Marie's children, was published in 1617, along with the third, a minor treatise entitled Instructions to My Daughter. Although she was licensed and trained as a midwife only, Bourgeois' long history of healing led her to compose a fourth book the year before her death, called A Collection of the Secrets of Louise Bourgeois. This last work covered the treatment of a wide assortment of diseases unrelated to pregnancy and childbirth and thus infringed on the medical "territory" of university-trained doctors, giving advice on conditions such as the common cold. Louise Bourgeois continued to practice midwifery until her death at about age 73.


Anderson, Bonnie S., and Judith P. Zinsser. A History of Their Own: Women in Europe from Prehistory to the Present. Vol. I. NY: Harper and Row, 1988.

Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice Hall, 1992.

Laura York , Anza, California

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