A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

In childbirth scenes in old westerns, why does someone always yell to boil water? Also: Butchered Beatles Albums

March 20, 1998

Dear Cecil:

I recently acquired a satellite dish and have become a shameless junkie of old westerns. In half of these B movies of plains life, it seems there is always a woman giving birth. After they give her the obligatory wooden spoon to bite on, someone always yells to boil some water. What's with the water?

Cecil replies:

Really. Your first thought is that the boiling water routine must have been dreamed up by male scriptwriters who had never witnessed the miracle of childbirth. Anyone who's actually assisted at one thinks: I don't need boiling water, what I need is a bucket and a mop. A midwife we talked to joked that it was mostly an excuse to get the husband out of the room.

But of course there was more to it than that. Midwives and such have been heating water since time immemorial to wash mother and baby following delivery. Water could also be used for warm compresses to ease pain during labor.

You didn't necessarily boil the water, though. Boiling water kills germs, but that wasn't understood until the late 19th century. Prior to that time many birth attendants attached no importance to cleanliness. Doctors in the 1780s, for example, complained about midwives with dirty hands poking around in the mother's innards during labor.

Truth is, as long as it was just midwives doing the poking, sterility wasn't that big a deal. Only when doctors got involved did it become a matter of life and death. During the 19th century, as doctors began to supplant midwives at the bedsides of women giving birth, there was an alarming rise in complications such as puerperal fever. This often fatal illness resulted from the infection of vaginal or other tissue torn during childbirth. Midwives weren't major carriers of this disease, because they saw only a handful of patients a week. A doctor, on the other hand, might handle diseased tissue during an autopsy and then proceed to the delivery room, where he'd unwittingly infect the mother.

Eventually the medical profession got the message about germs. In 1880 Louis Pasteur showed that puerperal fever was caused by a particular type of bacteria. Meanwhile the English physician Joseph Lister was persuading his colleagues of the importance of antiseptics in surgery. By 1885 hospitals had begun to adopt antiseptic methods such as boiling water to sterilize instruments, including those used during childbirth. (Previously many cases of tetanus had resulted from cutting the umbilical cord with a dirty knife or scissors, and of course there were the infamous forceps.) One may reasonably suppose that word of this reached the prairies and that boiling water both to sterilize things and, after it cooled, to wash the hands of the attending midwife/doctor/cowpoke became a standard part of the prenatal drill.

That's not to say no one ever boiled water before the 1880s. Here's a recipe for a concoction intended to hasten the delivery of a stillborn, from The Midwives Book (1671) by Jane Sharp: "Take Oyl of worms, of Foxes, and of the Lillies of the Vallies, each alike, boyl a young blind Puppey in them, so long that his flesh part from the bones; then press forth all strongly, and add to the straining, Styrax, Calamint, Benzoin, Opopanax, Frankincense, Mastik, of each one dram, a little Aqua Vitae, a little wax; mix them and make of them an Ointment; then let her drink often of this Potion following."

I mean, lest you get too rosy an impression of midwives.

Butchered Beatles albums

Dear Cecil:

In your discussion of the controversy over the "butcher cover" of the Beatles' "Yesterday" and Today [January 9, 1998], you mentioned that the design showing the moptops draped in raw cuts of meat and holding decapitated dolls was an attempt to satirize the vapid cover art of the time. But this isn't really what the bloody motif was meant to represent. It was a protest by the Beatles directed at Capitol, their American record label. Capitol was in the habit of shaving tracks from the British LPs and hoarding them for another full album of "new" songs for American consumption in between "official" releases. The butcher cover was a statement against the greed of the American record label who "butchered" the Beatles' artistic integrity for the sake of commerce.

Cecil replies:

Some people claim to have heard this explanation from John Lennon himself. Maybe they did, but if so it's an explanation Lennon cooked up after the fact. As I explained before, the idea for the cover came from photographer Bob Whitaker, and the Beatles eagerly agreed to it. At the time Lennon reportedly said, "I especially pushed for it … just to break the image." That it did. To quote my assistant Jane, who has a "peeled" copy of the stereo version of the album — that is, with the bland replacement cover photo peeled off: "Eww."

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