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A young English doctor in 1911 gazes in fascination at a poor woman of whom he was to write with vivid recollection 30 years later.

“For the first time I had been refused when offering chloroform… shyly she turned to me from the window that burst the first light of dawn and said ‘It didn’t hurt. It wasn’t meant to, was it, doctor?’” 

This woman’s words, in her Cockney accent, lead the young Dr Grantly Dick-Read to explore that in the absence of fear, the body’s natural endorphins can replace the stress hormones that cause pain in childbirth – what science was later to name as oxytocin and adrenalin. He went on to write the most influential book on childbirth of the last century, ‘Childbirth Without Fear’ in 1942, with the passage describing the encounter becoming famously enshrined in birth philosophy. “The window was broken, rain pouring in, the bed had no proper covering… the room was lit by one candle stuck in the top of a beer bottle on the mantelshelf, my patient covered in sacks… a neighbour had brought in a jug of water and a basin”.

I felt compelled by the words on his page, a book that helped influence and empower my own change in attitude to childbirth, to make Dick-Read’s cinematic memory into a photo at Dennis Severs’ House – a ‘living museum’ of Victorian London. With inspiration from the composition of painting ‘The Doctor’ (1890) by Sir Luke Fildes, the Whitechapel woman is brought back to life – she whose humble influence unknowingly catalysed a man’s insistence of listening to women at their bedside – and that our modern culture of increasingly machine-reliant, birth depersonalisation may learn again from.

“It is as great a crime to leave a woman alone in her agony and deny her relief from her suffering, as it is to insist upon dulling the consciousness of a natural mother who desires above all things to be fully aware of her senses and the final reward of her efforts”― Grantly Dick-Read

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