by Dawn Lowe

I time-travelled to Dublin with my hair tucked under a wig, makeup removed, breasts wrapped flat. Dressed in breeches and a frilly shirt—18th Century menswear—I walked to the old maternity hospital and walked inside.

“I’m a physician,” I said in a deep voice. “Let me help.”

“Follow me, Doctor,” a man answered. He wore a wig and clothing similar to mine.

The wan faces of patients I glimpsed were slick with terror and I saw no evidence of pain medication or anesthetic. What I did see was a frightening set of surgical tools with sharp hooks, nooses and clamps. Men with red hands rushed about, speaking in hushed, urgent tones. The place reeked of feces and boiled cabbage.

My guide led me past all this horror, downstairs.

“These are all dead,” he said when we got to the bottom of the stairs. He seized a torch from a bracket on the wall and waved this light about the room, revealing pregnant corpses lying in rows across the floor. In the corner, two wigged men stood dissecting a cadaver by candlelight, sleeves rolled up. They froze when they saw us as if caught doing something abominable, which they were.

“We must find the cause of this childbed fever,” one of them called, holding up a bloody saw.

“Try washing your hands,” I said. They nodded vaguely, as if this had never occurred to them. I persisted: “This fever is spread by men attending childbirth immediately after handling corpses.”

My guide held his torch up to my face. “Why, you’re a woman,” he said.

“I’m a physician,” I said, “and I’m telling the truth.” He laughed. “I’ll get you an apron,” he said. “If you love washing so much, you can clean the chamber pots.”

Advertisements