Women Who Ruled: Queen Victoria, part 5

On November 21, 1840 Queen Victoria gave birth to the first of her nine children with Albert, Princess Victoria. Reportedly the monarch hated the experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. Historians and biographers have speculated she may have suffered some combination of antenatal and postnatal depression. Nevertheless Queen Victoria bore children again in 1841, 1843, 1844, 1846, 1848, 1850, 1853, and 1857. All of her children survived to adulthood. 

Queen Victoria is sometimes known as the “grandmother of Europe” as her large brood married into other noble and royal houses of Europe. She and Albert had 42 grandchildren in all, 34 of whom survived to adulthood. Their granddaughters included the Empress of Russia and the Queens of Hellenes, Norway, Romania, and Spain. Their first grandson Wilhelm was the last keiser of Germany. 

Today there are seven reigning monarchs of European kingdoms: five of them are direct descendants of Queen Victoria and King Consort Albert. These include the Kings of Spain (Felipe VI), Norway (Harald V), and Sweden (Carl XVI Gustaf), as well as the Queens of Denmark (Margrethe II) and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (Elizabeth II). The King of the Belgians (Philippe) is a direct descendant of Victoria and Albert’s mutual uncle, Leopold I. 

For her eighth labor and delivery, Queen Victoria was administered chloroform for pain relief by Dr. John Snow. Opium in the form of laudanum and morphine was abundant in England, but known to be deliterious to pregnancy. Victoria first heard of chloroform use in labor when the Duchess of Sutherland sent her a pamphlet about the discovery of this anesthetic option, while the queen was in her sixth pregnancy in 1847. However, shortly after, a highly publicized account of a teen girl who’d died from the drug kept Victoria from experimenting with it herself. 

By 1853 she’d become acquainted with John Snow, a physician who swore by the safety of properly administered chloroform. Victoria’s sixth and seventh deliveries were particularly painful. Albert, a science nerd by preference and the President of the Royal College of Chemistry, became an advocate of chloroform, after hours of scientific interrogation of the doctor. Victoria used “that blessed Chloroform… soothing, quieting and delightful beyond measure” in her eighth and ninth births. 

Men of science and men of God protested this unnecessary medical intervention, this escape of Eve’s curse. But others welcomed it, including midwives, some doctors, and staggering numbers of pregnant women. Victoria employed Snow as her personal physician for the rest of her life, but loaned him out to her daughters and daughters in law for their own labors. Her use and approval of pain relief in childbirth opened the doors for further exploration of anesthesia options in labor and delivery. 

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