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Childbirth, childbed fever, and abortion

The earliest surviving Greek medical writings date from about 420 BCE. These form part of the Hippocratic Corpus, a collection of writings attributed to the physician, *Hippocrates of Cos (c. 450-370 BCE), and his followers. By this time, the Greeks had established settlements around the Black Sea and the Mediterranean as far west as Spain. The Corpus contains more gynaecological works than survive from any other period of Antiquity. Women's diseases, particularly impurities of the womb, were treated with noxious medicaments used in religious purification rituals in the belief that these would flee from evil smells. They included excrement, sulphur, squill, and laurel. Childbirth was generally the province of midwives, birth attendants, or experienced mothers of the community, and it is likely that doctors and other healers derived information from them.

Although the 9-month period of gestation was understood, it was believed that a child born prematurely at 7 months had a more favourable chance of survival than one at 8 months. This idea was carried down to the 19th century. Another persistent concept was that of the 'wandering womb', thought to be a cause of frequent illness. 'Hysteria', from the Greek word hystera, meaning 'womb', was believed to originate in this organ. There are no accounts of procedures involved in normal delivery but occasional references to unusual birth presentations or other obstetric difficulties. Women were clearly at risk both during and after childbirth. The Hippocratic treatise, On epidemics, includes a description of the brief illness and death of Dromeades' wife who was seized with a fever the day after giving birth to a daughter. Her urine became cloudy and she alternated between sweats and chills.

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