©Wellcome Library, London

A woman dying of puerperal sepsis is being shown her newborn child for the final time before receiving the last rites. She is comforted by her husband while other members of the household mourn. In Britain, this scene was no less prevalent in the 20th century than it had been in the 19th. By 1920, the maternal mortality rate in England and Wales was 43.3 deaths per 1000 deliveries. In the United States it was 68.9 whilst in the Netherlands, where instrumental deliveries were rare and most mothers gave birth at home, it was 24. Dora Russell of the Workers' Birth Control Group, pointed out to an unresponsive British government that child-bearing was far more risky than coal-mining, the most hazardous male occupation. By 1960, however, the maternal mortality rates in all 3 national groups were almost identical, being 3.9, 3.7, and 3.7 respectively.

Engraving by Albert Henry Payne (1812-1902) after Karl Theodor Piloty (1826-1886), Lisbon.