|Elizabeth Hanks Curtis, a Mormon midwife and practical nurse, delivered babies and provided health care in rural Graham County from the late 1890s to the 1920s. Like many midwives, Elizabeth Hanks Curtis was not formally trained but had acquired some informal training from a doctor in her native England. Her patients considered Curtis to be a very competent practitioner who delivered nearly 1,000 babies and lost very few to death. She charged five dollars to care for mother and infant for two weeks, frequently fording the Gila River on horseback to help the sick or to deliver a baby.
Elizabeth Hanks Curtis was the second wife of Moses Curtis whom she married when she was 18 in 1870. At that time, Curtis was 54 and had a family of 7 children with his first wife. Elizabeth gave birth to 8 children. When her husband died in 1907, she continued to act as midwife and practical nurse in the community.
Elizabeth Hanks Curtis is representative of many women who provided health care in early Arizona. Due to long distances between ranches, farms and towns, their work was invaluable in rural communities. She and other midwives had lower rates of maternal and infant mortality than physicians in the early twentieth century. In general, midwives had more practical experience than most male physicians and rarely employed interventionist methods, such as forceps and drugs, which frequently caused complications. In addition, Curtis and other midwives were affordable. Because they usually limited their practice to friends and relatives, midwives often collected less than half the fees charged by general practitioners. Moreover midwives performed a variety of household chores that were beyond the scope of services expected of physicians, including help with the housework and child care while the new mother tended to her infant. Many minority women in Arizona relied on midwives in childbirth into the 1940s while Anglo women were more likely to turn to physicians by the 1920s.
Learn more about Elizabeth Hanks Curtis and the rural community of Pima by visiting the Eastern Arizona Museum and Historical Society of Graham County. This museum is located in Pima at 2 North Main (Main and Highway 70).
Elizabeth Hanks Curtis - Courtesy of Eastern Arizona Museum and Historical Society