Updated: Jan 16, 2020
by Elin de Ruyter, Australia
We surely owe much to the memories of our midwife ancestors, who helped birth the people of our small nation of Iceland. These were women and men who placed much strain in their own lives in order to aid women in labour. This was a calling not for the faint of heart or weak of character. They were dedicated, passionate, self-sacrificing women and men who battled the wind and the rain, took on dangerous journeys on foot or by horse over mountains and heaths, or in a boat across turbulent seas. Many times was the exhausted midwife, often a mother to many children of her own, woken in the middle of the night having to leave behind her own household in whatever state it was to tend to the call of the midwife. She was a provider of comfort and relief to women traversing one of life’s rites of passage and miracles - childbirth.
It is with this in mind that I wanted to share the story of my own great-great-grandmother midwife, Guðrún Ljósmóðir 'Þórðardóttir, The First Registered Midwife of Súgandafjörður. She was described as a brown-eyed, rather dark-skinned, energetic woman and was known for her generosity and willingness to help those less fortunate than herself. Not only was she the first educated and registered midwife for the Suðureyrar district in Súgandafjörður in the remote Westfjords of Iceland. She also birthed fourteen of her own children and was a stepmother to an older daughter and son.
Guðrún lived in a time vastly different from our own today. These were the days of old in Iceland, a time when men followed the seasons, not the clock and a women’s sole role in life was to marry and bear her husband children. On average, she would have about eight to ten children in her lifetime. It was a time before electricity and telephones, before paved roads and bridges over fast flowing rivers. This was a time before epidurals and C-sections, a time when a woman couldn't be rushed to the nearest hospital if something wasn't going as planned. It was also a time when it was normal for a woman to give birth at home and her biggest comfort in this uncertain ordeal was her faith in God, her midwife and the natural workings of her own body. In her time, Guðrún would have been called the Icelandic word ‘Ýfirsetukona’, as the word ‘Ljósmóðir’ was not in fact used to describe a midwife until about 1924.
Guðrun Þórðardóttir was born 06 January 1860 at the farm Botn in Suðureyrarhreppur, Ísafjarðarsýsla. She was the eldest child of the local church ‘forsongvari‘ (lead singer), farmer and fisherman, Þórður Þórðarson and his wife Helga Sigurðardóttir. Guðrún was lucky in that she had a stable childhood and was able to grow up in her parents’ household, a turf cottage nestled deep in a windy, rocky valley called Vatnadalur (translated as Water Valley). Helga and Þórður had eight children but lost two sons shortly after their birth and one daughter at the age of two. Parish records for Staðarssókn show that Kristín Þórarinsdóttir was the name of the midwife who delivered Guðrún and all her siblings. She was in fact her father’s aunt, a strong woman who ran her own farm further down the valley where the district church was located at Staður.
I often wonder what Gudrun’s inspiration towards a career in midwifery was but I imagine her great aunt Kristín had a good deal of influence in Guðrún’s life. Kristín had raised Guðrún’s father, Þórður, from a young age and the farm they lived on at Ytri Vatnadalur also belonged to Kristín. She was a wealthy and well-respected woman of the district.
Kristín was an uneducated midwife, meaning that she did not undertake any formal studies to practice midwifery. Prior to 1880 in Súgandafjörður, midwifery skills were often passed down the generations through family or previous midwives. In the late 18th Century, it was traditionally the district priest that named or directed a woman to take on the role of district midwife. They chose women who they felt were sensible, rational, honest, “Þóttu skara fram úr” (Stood out from the rest) and had the most experience. Women who were well educated and trusted were chosen to be a midwife for their area.
Though literacy among Icelanders was high and all children were taught how to read, learning to write was less common and an undervalued skill in women. It was often thought a waste for girls, as was mentioned in the biography of the midwife, Petrea Guðny Gísladóttir, who said that if women took an interest and deemed to ask to learn to write they were given this mocking reply: “þú ert ekki orðin hreppsstjóri enn þá!“ translating as: “You are not a local council chairman yet!”
Coming from a working girl position and becoming a midwife was an attractive option. Midwives were the first women to receive an education and paid wages. It was an occupation that granted respectability and stature among the community. A midwife was paid 3 Krona for prenatal birth and antenatal care and could expect a yearly income of about 40 Krona. As a midwife of the district, she would be her own person/boss and provided housing. It wasn’t until 1911 that Icelandic women were allowed to become Doctors, so becoming a midwife was the closest they could get to this profession.
In 1875, there were new regulations around the education of midwives. It became a requirement that the length of study for midwives change from around six weeks to three months and taken under the supervision of a Landlæknir (Surgeon General) in Reykjavík or a Heraðslæknir (Country Doctor) in one of the following towns: Akureyri, Isafirði, Stykkishólmi or Eskifirði.
Records show that in the winter of 1880, my great-great-grandmother Guðrún went to Ísafjordur and studied midwifery under the Doctor Þorvaldur Jónsson for three months. She would most likely have lived with or near the Doctor’s house, in Ísafjörður during her studies. She sat her midwifery exam on 19 March 1880 at the age of twenty and by June that year, she took on the role of district midwife for the Suðureyri district in Sugandafjörður, her home district. There were thirteen farms in her district. Some farms were on the other side of the fjord, so travel may have been by boat. She most likely walked to and from her patients, as horses were less in these mountainous regions.
A map of Súgandafjörður in the Westfjörds of Iceland. Highlighted in yellow are all the farms included in Guðrún's midwifery district. These were Staður, Fremri and Neðri Vatnadalur, Bær, Suðureyri, Selárdalur, Laugar, Göltur, Norðureyri, Kvíanes, Botn, Gilsbrekka and Keflavík. 1934 Map. www.islandskort.is
Guðrún met with sorrow many times in her life. In 1882 she was forced to endure one of the hardest summers of her twenty-two years of life. This summer sat heavily upon the community of Súgandfirði and they felt the weight of a hard winter and little reprieve until spring. Guðrún had been in her role as a midwife for nearly two years when tragedy struck their small community - a measles epidemic. Twenty-five people died in this small community including eighteen children. Newly engaged Guðrún lost her fiance, Helgi Sigurðsson, a promising young man of twenty-six from Bolungarvík.
A year after this incident, in the Spring of 1883, at the turf church at Staður in Vatnadalur, twenty-three-year-old Guðrún married a man nine years her senior, a thirty-two-year-old widower named Kristjan Albertsson. They married on the 1st of October after becoming engaged on the 9th of September. Kristján was a farmer and a fisherman. He owned and was the foreman of various boats over the years and was a well-liked and respected man in the community. He had given up his role as district councilor after the tragic loss of his wife and two daughters in the measles epidemic of 1882. He lost his wife of nine years, Kristín Guðmundsdóttir and their two young daughters, Guðrún and Guðfinna, in the space of a few days. After the wedding, Guðrún moved from her parents’home at Ytri Vatnadalur on the other side of the mountain Spillir to Kristján’s farm at Suðureyri, a large farm split between two separate families. Guðrún became a step-mother to Kristján’s only surviving child, nine-year-old daughter Kristin and his foster son/nephew, Örnólfur Jóhannesson.
Guðrún Þórðardóttir and her husband Kristján Albertsson surrounded by 11 of their children.
In January of 1885, Guðrún became the mother to her first child, a son they named Kristján Albert Kristjánsson. After this, Guðrún juggled motherhood and midwifery side by side. She was pregnant on and off for her whole midwifery career which lasted nearly twenty-five years. In that time, she gave birth to fourteen children of which were six girls and eight boys. She lost two babies shortly after their birth and a nine-year-old daughter to an unknown illness. Eleven of her children lived to see adulthood, one of which was Hans Kristjánsson, founder of Sjóklæðagerð Íslands h.f. which is known today as Iceland’s famous clothing brand, 66° North.
Guðrún Þorðardóttir was a woman who has fascinated me for a long time, and has driven my interest in knowing more about 19th Century Icelandic midwives. She never wrote any memoirs and her personal stories of life as a midwife were never recorded or passed down, or if they were, they have been forgotten or stored in the memories of cousins that I may never meet. I was however lucky enough to have a cousin share with me a memory her grandmother recalled of Guðrún. She said that Guðrún was called out to attend a woman in labour only days after the birth of her firstborn child Kristján Albert in January of 1885. She had to leave her new baby to attend the birth. I can’t imagine how hard that would have been for the new mother. There was no such thing as maternity leave in those days! It was also apparent that she did not breastfeed her children, as I once thought most women of that time did. After some research I discovered that it was actually an uncommon practice in Iceland to breastfeed your baby during the 18th and early 19th Century, and it was said that North Ísafjarðarsýsla in the northwest where Guðrún was from still had a low level of breastfeeding and subsequently one of the highest infant mortality rates at the turn of the century. The article called “The Development of Infant Mortality in Iceland 1800-1920”, mentioned that this could be ascertained to the fact that it was among the most isolated places from the main lines of land communication and new medical trends that had taken place in Reykjavík, years earlier, took longer to take effect in the northwest. Babies were given either diluted cow or sheep milk and also were fed solids anywhere from the age of one-month-old, but this, in turn, led to high rates death in infants, as it caused intestinal obstruction and inflammation of the belly and finally dehydration caused by diarrhea.
After reading the biographies of many Icelandic midwives of this era in the books Íslenzkar Ljósmæður by Sveinn Víkingur, I found that many of them had similar values and beliefs in common. A midwife's faith in God was her rock and before a birth took place, it was common practice for the midwife to ask God to guide her hands in the well-being of the woman in labour. Sometimes, if the circumstances were poor at birth, there was little milk available, the house too cold or the family were very poor, the midwife would take the baby home with her for three weeks. When a baby was unwanted, or the family couldn’t afford to keep it, sometimes the midwife would foster the child permanently. My other great-great-grandmother, Elín Jóhannesdóttir, was fostered by her midwife upon her birth in 1863.
Many midwives had an innate intuition and would sense if a birth was imminent for a woman. One midwife explained that she would wake in the middle of the night for an unexplained reason, but after making herself some warm milk in the kitchen, would hear the usual knock on the door for a midwifery call-out. It was usual that a person would knock on the window or door of the midwife’s house, to alert her of a birth. A ‘fylgimaður‘ (guide) would accompany her to their farm to attend their wife or relative.
Guðrún would have to contend with all sorts of possible birthing complications. She was expected to manage on her own, but if the situation was dire, the doctor could be called upon. Her nearest doctor was Dr Þorvaldur Jónsson at Ísafirði, a three-hour walk each way, in good weather, over mountainous terrain. So as you can see it was possible that in times of complications, a doctor might not always make it in time.
Kristín Jónsdóttir was a midwife for Flateyarahreppi around the same time Guðrún was a midwife. In her memoirs she says (translated),
“...one could only do so much and a well-educated midwife or doctor could not always help, any more than those who didn’t have the learning or experience behind them… problems often sorted themselves out with patience and let your own intuition guide you.”
A Midwife's Bag, along with all the equipment that came with it from the landlæknisembætti. The midwife would carry this bag to all her deliveries. From the book Ljósmæður á Íslandi Volume II pg 320
Chamomile tea was used to give the tired woman giving birth some energy. After the birth, they would move her to a clean bed and it was usual for a midwife to stay from three days and up to two weeks after delivery. A midwife had the authority to baptize a child not likely to survive after birth. Premature babies were more likely to die and they christened babies quickly if they were sick or premature.
By 1886, it was required that midwives recorded their births. In their birthing log was recorded the names of children born, sex, weight and length, parents’ names, age, occupation and previous births by the mother. Unfortunately, Guðrún’s birthing log has not been discovered. In 1905, at the age of forty-five, Guðrún retired from midwifery, but her daughter-in-law, Sigríður Híramína Jóhannesdóttir, took over the post for the district, which gave Guðrún more time for the tiring, endless job of mothering and running her household and the raising of her own children who were all born around these years. Her youngest, my great-grandmother Þorbjörg Kristjánsdóttir, was born in 1905.
Kristján and Guðrún were prominent members of their community and they were influential in the transformation of Suðureyri from a farm to a small town. They were in fact called the Last Farmers of Suðureyri. In the spring of 1891, Kristján became the first man to run a goods store in Suðureyri under the license of Asgeirsverslun in Ísafirði. Salt was stored downstairs and food upstairs, which meant that the people of Súgandafirði didn’t have to travel to Ísafirði or Flateyri to store their fish or buy necessary goods. In those days, the residents of Súgandafjörður did not have money, but goods were traded. Guðrún and Kristján were known to be hospitable people and helped those in need when they could. They were the first to build their house out of timber in Súgandafjörður in 1892. At the time, there were only turf cottages, of which there were about twenty in the district.
This passage was written about Guðrún by a man named Kristján G. Þorvaldson who knew her well:
“It was often crowded at their home and they entertained many guests, even in the later years. The duties of a housewife with a large family was substantial and complex and her midwifery duties on top of that did nothing to ease this, as it required of her both long and short journeys which were sometimes difficult. Guðrún was a courageous woman, composed, attentive and even-tempered. She lent a helping hand to many and in a few words she was an excellent woman, who was caring and respectful to all those she encountered”.
Guðrún and Kristján´s house at Suðureyri. Taken before 1924. Photo from Súgfirðingabók. Page 131.
In 1909, only four years after retirement, Guðrún became a widow after the death of her husband, Kristján Albertsson. She kept up the running of the farm at Suðureyri, with the help of her grown children until a storm destroyed her house on 28 January 1924. She was praised by relatives for her quick thinking and it was said that she ushered all the people of the house into the cellar to wait out the storm. This storm tore down the house, piece by piece, their belongings were strewn across the farm, the sewing machine, found in the pond. She moved to Reykjavík with her daughter Helga and her family, a few years later, and passed away 18 December 1934. One man who knew her well was quoted as saying,
“She was 74 when she died. Too soon. Even if she had been 100, it would have been too soon.”
Elin de Ruyter is a volunteer genealogist for Icelandic Roots. She is the creator of the new, interesting, and very important project within the IR Database which chronicles the lives of Icelandic Midwives including photographs, maps, stories, places, education, and much more. If you had an Icelandic midwife in your family, please send us the information to the MIDWIFE PROJECT.
Gunnar M. Magnúss. 1977. Súgfirðingabók. Reykjavík: Ægisútgáfan.
Guttormsson, Loftur, and Ólöf Garðarsdóttir. 2018. "The Development Of Infant Mortality In Iceland 1800-1920". Ep.Liu.Se. http://www.ep.liu.se/ej/hygiea/ra/015/paper.pdf.
Ólafsson, Kjartan. 1999. Firđir Og Fólk 900-1900. [Reykjavík]: Útgáfufélagi Búnađarsambands Vestfjarđa.
Steinunn Finnbogadóttir, Sólveig Matthíasdóttir, and Björg Einarsdóttir. 1984. Ljósmæður Á Íslandi. Reykjavík: Ljósmæðrafélag Íslands.
Sveinn Víkingur. 1962. Íslenzkar Ljósmæður. Akureyri: Kvöldvökuútgáfan.
"Þjóðskjalasafn Íslands". 2018. Skjalaskrar.Skjalasafn.Is. http://skjalaskrar.skjalasafn.is/Default.aspx?ID=SVMtw57DjS0wNTUyLTAwMDAtMjMy.