The first time Prunella Briance gave birth she wasn’t afraid, but she prayed hard throughout. The Cypriot hospital where she was to deliver was experiencing a power cut, and early in labour it emerged that her placenta was worryingly low in the womb.
The doctor stayed all night in her room, consulting textbooks to determine how he should proceed. He opted for a caesarean with local anaesthetic, but had to halt halfway through to allow an electrician to rig up temporary lighting. When asked by the nurses whether she would die, the doctor answered, “I don’t know.” They didn’t realise Briance could understand them.
That was in 1953, and her baby boy was eventually delivered in good health.
Two years later Briance gave birth again, this time in London to a baby girl. Inspired by the writings of obstetrician Grantly Dick-Read, a proponent of what he called “natural childbirth”, she decided to take charge of how she would deliver. It all went well, she said, until the medical staff intervened, when the midwife accidentally dropped her and a doctor insisted she have castor oil. She was sick from the oil, and in agony due to the fall. In the end the baby “got stuck”, and died.
That tragedy, which Briance blamed on the hospital staff, nearly destroyed her. But it also convinced her to act. “Having mourned deeply, I suddenly came to life,” Briance said, “and realised that someone had to do something, and so I did.”
Following Dick-Read’s research, she thought that expectant mothers could have unmedicated, often painless deliveries, if only they were made to feel confident and in control. She believed that a more natural approach would prevent other women from enduring what she did. In 1956 she announced the launch of the Natural Childbirth Association of Great Britain (NCA), “for the promotion and better understanding of the Dick-Read system”.
The NCA received reams of press coverage, and early encouragement in the form of a “good luck” telegram from the Queen. But the medical community was suspicious of the association, which seemed to be challenging hospital rules, and teaching midwifery without permission. Still, the association galvanised women to share their experiences of the labour ward, and to no longer leave every childbirth decision to medical staff.
Dick-Read was the association’s first president, and within two years the NCA started offering antenatal courses, teaching soothing patterns of…