Van Blarcom, Carolyn (1879–1960)

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Van Blarcom, Carolyn (1879–1960)

American nurse and midwife. Born Carolyn Conant Van Blarcom on June 12, 1879, in Alton, Illinois; died of bronchopneumonia on March 20, 1960, in Arcadia, California; daughter of William Dixon Van Blarcom (a financier) and Fanny (Conant) Van Blarcom (a linguist and pianist); graduated from Johns Hopkins Hospital Training School for Nurses, 1901.

Was an instructor of obstetrics and assistant superintendent of nurses, Johns Hopkins Hospital Training School (1901–05); served as director of sanitariums in Maryland and Massachusetts; served as secretary, New York Committee for the Prevention of Blindness (beginning 1909); became America's first licensed midwife (1913); helped establish a school for midwives (1914); published textbooks and popular health books.

Carolyn Van Blarcom was born in Alton, Illinois, in 1879, the fourth of six children in an affluent household. Although her father abandoned the family sometime before 1893, her mother Fanny Van Blarcom , a linguist and pianist, managed to raise the children in a middle-class atmosphere. Van Blarcom contracted rheumatic fever at age six, and this ailment eventually led to rheumatoid arthritis, leaving her weak and frail. For the rest of her life, she would have periods of illness that confined her to bed. Because of this, her early education took place at home, where her mother was her primary teacher.

Van Blarcom was 14 when her mother died, and she traveled East to live with her mother's father, the portrait painter Alban Jasper Conant. In 1898, despite her family's objections, she enrolled in the renowned three-year training program at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Training School for Nurses. Although her illness prevented her from studying for more than a year, she compensated for this and was invited to become a member of the faculty of the nursing school upon her graduation. She was an instructor in obstetrics for the next four years, and also served as assistant superintendent of nurses at the school.

In 1905, Van Blarcom left Johns Hopkins and went to St. Louis, where she reorganized a training school for nurses. For three years after that, an attack of rheumatoid arthritis curtailed her work. When her illness went into remission, she became director of the Maryland Tuberculosis Sanitarium at Sibillisville. Her success in that position led to the directorship of a sanatarium near New Bedford, Massachusetts, and under her leadership it was transformed from an underfunded, unequipped clinic to a state-of-the-art, highly regarded hospital.

In 1909, she was appointed secretary of the New York State Committee for the Prevention of Blindness, where she investigated the causes of blindness and educated the public about prevention and treatment. In 1916, she was elected secretary of the Illinois Society for the Prevention of Blindness. Van Blarcom discovered that among newborn babies, the leading cause of preventable blindness was an eye infection called ophthalmia neonatorum. This condition could easily be prevented by putting silver nitrate drops into newborns' eyes, but the treatment was not widely known or used by birth attendants. Van Blarcom's discovery of the appalling state of current midwifery practices led her to work with the New York State Committee and the Russell Sage Foundation to study midwifery practices in the United States, England, and 14 other countries. Through this research, she determined that the United States was the only developed country that did not provide for training and licensing of midwives. The results of the study were published in The Midwife in England (1913), her most important work. Van Blarcom was the first American nurse to become a licensed midwife, and her book established her as an authority in the field. Her articles appeared in medical and popular journals, she spoke at health conferences across the country, and she assisted in the establishment of a school for midwives, which was affiliated with Bellevue Hospital in New York City.

During World War I, Van Blarcom directed the Bureau of Nursing Services of the Atlantic Division of the American Red Cross. In the 1920s, she devoted her energy to editing and writing, serving as health editor for the Delineator and also writing the textbook Obstetrical Nursing (1922). In addition, she wrote two popular books, Getting Ready to Be a Mother (1922) and Building the Baby (1929).

With the further deterioration of her own health in the 1930s, Van Blarcom retired, although she worked briefly during World War II, directing the nurses' aid training program of the American Red Cross chapter in Pasadena, California. After this, to her disappointment and dismay, her illness prevented her from working at all. She died of bronchopneumonia in Arcadia, California, on March 20, 1960, at age 80.


Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Kelly Winters , freelance writer

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Van Blarcom, Carolyn (1879–1960)

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