AS a starting point for the history of maternity care in the north-east of Scotland, you would struggle to find a stranger or more nightmarish tale than that of Margaret Bane.

The local midwife - or “howdie” - was strangled and burned at the stake for witchcraft and sorcery in Aberdeen in 1597. Her daughter met the same fate just 10 days later.

Among the 16 charges levelled against Bane five drew on her role as a midwife, including accusations that she had “put the labour pains” onto the husband of one of her patients in during childbirth such that he “went mad and died”.

On another occasion she was accused of “terrifying” a local man sent to collect her by speaking for a “long time” to “the Devil in the likeness of a horse” after the animal appeared en route as they journeyed to the home of the woman whose baby she was due to deliver.

READ MORE: Two in 300 mothers in Scotland having a home birth 

The story underlines a long history of female persecution - from conflating midwifery with witchcraft to the more recent struggles for the right to control childbearing - and sets Aberdeen up as an unlikely trailblazer.

‘Bringing Life to Aberdeen’, due to be published by Edinburgh-based Luath Press on November 30, comes at a time when NHS Grampian is constructing the new Baird Family Hospital - named after one of its most famous pioneers, the obstetrician Sir Duguld Baird.

The facility, which will replace the Aberdeen Maternity Hospital, is expected to open in March 2024 and will provide maternity, neonatal, reproductive medicine, breast and gynaecology services under one roof.

HeraldScotland: An artist's impression of the new Baird Family Hospital, due to open in Aberdeen in 2024An artist's impression of the new Baird Family Hospital, due to open in Aberdeen in 2024 (Image: NHS Grampian)

It marks the culmination of a journey that began with the founding of Lady Drum’s Hospital in the 1630s, at a cost of 3000 Scottish merks (66 pence), to provide care for “poor widows and aged virgins”.

The Aberdeen Dispensary - the first real precursor to a maternity hospital - eventually followed in 1894, with three “lying-in” beds for pregnant women and childbirth.

It admitted just 46 patients in its first year, but demand grew and in 1912 the 36-bed Aberdeen Maternity Hospital was formally established at Castle Hill.

By the time the maternity hospital relocated in 1937, to its current Foresterhill premises, it was delivering over 700 babies a year and dealing with nearly 200 emergency admissions - although home births still remained the norm.

The book is packed with anecdotes including the wartime “Haddo babies”, born at Haddo House - the the ancestral home near Tarves of Lord and Lady Aberdeen - during the Second World War.

The home, which had once accommodated Queen Victoria, was used as an emergency maternity hospital and “tranquil refuge” where expectant mothers from Glasgow, Clydebank and Aberdeen could escape German bombing raids - though some came from London and even Finland.

They would arrive a month before their due dates and stay for a month after the birth. Between 1939 and 1943, more than 800 babies were born in Queen Victoria’s Bedroom - the delivery suite.

In a Scottish good luck custom, the Marquis of Aberdeen (known fondly as Uncle Doddie) “visited each mother after she gave birth and provided each newborn with a shilling (five pence)”.

HeraldScotland: Primrose Ward at Aberdeen Maternity Hospital in Castle Terrace, circa 1930Primrose Ward at Aberdeen Maternity Hospital in Castle Terrace, circa 1930 (Image: NHS Grampian)

There is also the tale of Dr Alexander Gordon, an Aberdeen obstetrician and trained midwife who pulled together statistics tracking outbreaks of puerperal fever in the city. This was a deadly disease for mothers and newborns, and is now known to be caused by exposure to streptococcus bacteria during childbirth.

Gordon’s research, published in 1795 - some 70 years ahead of Lister’s work on antisepsis - argued that the condition was not caused by ‘bad air’ as doctors then believed, but only affected women cared for by a medic or nurse who had previously attended another patient with the disease.

READ MORE: Lister, X-rays and nursing - how Glasgow Royal Infirmary changed medicine

The book notes: “He argued that spread could be prevented by attendants carefully washing their hands and wearing clean clothes after attending patients with the disease. His views were ridiculed by medical and nursing colleagues and his theories received a hostile response both locally and elsewhere.”

More than a century later, Sir Duguld Baird - appointed the regius professor of midwifery in Aberdeen in 1937 - was another physician not afraid to challenge the medical and societal norms of the day.

HeraldScotland: Painting of Sir Duguld Baird Painting of Sir Duguld Baird (Image: NHS Grampian)

Ayrshire-born Sir Duguld, who died in 1986, is described by the authors as “unusually aware of the social factors in obstetrics”.

This drove him to take the “unprecedented step of introducing dieticians, sociologists, psychologists and statisticians to his department”.

He oversaw falling rates of maternal and perinatal mortality during the 1940s and was a staunch supporter of family planning, having previously demonstrated through research in Glasgow that a third of maternal deaths occurred in women who had had six or more children already.

As the book notes, Baird’s determination to “allow women to have a healthier life by reducing the burden of unwanted pregnancy through contraception, sterilisation and abortion were effective in reducing maternal and perinatal deaths in Grampian and this example was followed in the rest of the country.”

Controversially, Aberdeen was the first place in UK to remove all charges for advice and contraception at its family planning clinic in 1967.

Its 30-cot neonatal unit, which opened in 1963, was also among the first in the world - matched only by Toronto - to start ventilating newborn and premature babies.

HeraldScotland: IVF being processed at Aberdeen maternity hospital in 1989 in a laboratory created from a converted officeIVF being processed at Aberdeen maternity hospital in 1989 in a laboratory created from a converted office (Image: NHS Grampian)

In 1917, Professor Matthew Hay - a public health doctor in Aberdeen - was responsible for one of the first known reviews of maternal mortality in the UK when he investigated every death that had occurred in Aberdeen’s maternity units.

It provided a blueprint for the UK’s eventual Confidential Enquiry into Maternal Deaths, which launched in 1952 and continues to this day to monitor deaths of women in pregnancy, childbirth, and the first six weeks after delivery.

“What started off as a local hospital-based audit in Aberdeen was adopted by the whole nation as part of the newly started National Health Service,” states the book.

READ MORE: Tayside had UK's second highest stillbirth rate in 2020

Aberdeen was also the birthplace of a novel classification system for stillbirths, devised by Sir Duguld in 1941 and still in use.

The city also led the way on research into pre-eclampsia - a potentially life-threatening increase in blood pressure during pregnancy.

Professor Ian MacGillivray - the head of department for obstetrics and gynaecology in Aberdeen created the classification system for the condition that remains the international standard.

The north-east of Scotland was one of the first regions to develop cervical screening, following a trial led in the early 1960s by Dr Betty Macgregor.

HeraldScotland: Dr Betty MacgregorDr Betty Macgregor (Image: NHS Grampian)

In an article published in the British Medical Journal, Macgregor noted that “within five years of the screening service being established, there was a significant decrease in cervical cancer in the Aberdeen area. Such was the success of the programme in Aberdeen that it led to cervical screening services being introduced throughout the UK”.

Aberdeen was also a pioneer in reproductive medicine: it generated the first babies born in Scotland from cryopreserved embryos, and in 1995 the first baby born in Scotland as a result of micro-assisted fertilisation was conceived thanks to Aberdeen’s adoption of intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) - a laboratory technique whereby a single sperm is injected directly into the egg using a microscopic needle.

George Youngson, co-author and emeritus Professor of Paediatric Surgery at Aberdeen University, said he had been inspired to chart the history of neonatal medicine in the north-east following his own brush with death two years ago, but found resources lacking.

He said: “There came a point that when I tried to look into the history of the maternity hospital - because the neonatal unit is in the maternity hospital - and there was no source to go to.”

‘Bringing Life to Aberdeen’ is the first single book to bring together the region’s whole history, from early midwifery to reproductive medicine.

HeraldScotland: Celebrating the 10th birthday of Aberdeen Reproduction Unit in 2009Celebrating the 10th birthday of Aberdeen Reproduction Unit in 2009 (Image: Dr Mark Hamilton)

Prof Youngson said there had been “some seminal figures”, but that he hopes the book will also shine a light on some lesser known heroes.

“There were quite a lot of people, particularly women, who had got no real recognition for their contributions,” said Prof Youngson, citing the example of Fenella Paton who founded and personally bankrolled Aberdeen’s first birth control clinic for married women in 1926 “amidst a storm of controversy”.

He added: “She was a wealthy woman - she didn’t need to have a job, but my goodness she did a job”.

Of Sir Duguld, who helped found Aberdeen’s first neonatal unit, Prof Youngson describes him simply as “a giant”.

“He was a really staunch advocate for the health of women in pregnancy, during delivery and beyond. His instinct would be to look at the world now and condemn the US going retrogressively back on the rights of women.”