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Wild Women Of The West: Patty Bartlett Sessions

Mother of Mormon Midwifery

November 19, 2019

The shrill cry of a woman in immense pain filled the other wise quiet night sky over Utah’s Salt Lake Valley.  Patty Bartlett Sessions smiled down at the expectant mother and wiped the sweat off her forehead. Barely out of her teens, the woman was in the final stages of delivery and frightened of the experience her body was going through.  Her pleading eyes found compassion in the fifty-two-year-old midwife caring for her.

Patty Bartlett Sessions had helped bring hundreds of babies into the world.  The sparsely populated western frontier of the 1800s was in need of trained birth attendants who could help ensure mother and child survived the grueling process of labor and delivery.  The gifted midwife calmly reassured the frantic mother-to-be with stories of the healthy infants she had laid in the arms anxious mothers. The exhausted woman nodded and tried to smile through a contraction.

Patty did not solely rely on practical experience to help her with her job.  She studied the pages of a medical book entitled Aristotle’s Wisdom:  Directions for Midwives.  The publication contained advice and counsel for delivering a baby, along with more than 300 photographs of fetuses in various stages of development.  She had pored over numerous books on the subject, and in 1847 was one of the most trusted women in the midwife profession.

On Sunday, September 26, 1847, Patty assisted in the birth of the first male born in the Salt Lake Valley.  Her role in the momentous occasion was predicted along before the boy was born. Her journal entry for that day does not tell who predicted the event, but the midwife was honored to be a part of history:

“It was said to me more than five months ago that my hands should be the first to handle the first-born son in the place of rest for the saints even in the city of our God.  I have come more than one thousand miles to do it since it was spoken.”

Patty Bartlett Session’s journey began thousands of miles from Utah in the small New England town of Newry, Maine.  She was born on February 4, 1795, to Enoch and Anna Bartlett, and was the first of nine children the couple had together.

Like all her brothers and sisters, Patty was raised on the family farm and was required to do a variety of chores.  She excelled in spinning, weaving, and sewing. The intricate stitching, she used on her samplers would come in handy with stitching of another kind once she entered the medical profession.  Although her mother and father did not require their daughters to attend school, Patty sought out an education. She learned to read and write from the Newry schoolmistress and was a gifted math student.

On June 28, 1812, Patty married a farmer named David Sessions.  The newlyweds moved in with his parents in the nearby town of Ketchum.  David’s mother, Rachel, suffered from rheumatism and required constant care.  While David tended to the crops, Patty tended to her mother-in-law. The daunting responsibility inadvertently led the teenager to pursue a career as a midwife.

Before Rachel had become disabled, she was the trained attendant who neighbors and friends sought help from with obstetrical cases.  One afternoon she received a frantic summons to the bedside of an expectant mother who was very ill. Physically unable to get to the mother-to-be quickly, Rachel decided to send Patty to lend a hand.  She reassured her daughter-in-law that she had the compassion and common sense necessary to be out of help, and Patty agreed to go.

When she arrived on the scene, the expectant mother was in labor and very sick.  Patty thought the woman was dying. What she lacked in practical knowledge, she made up for in nerve and courage.  Patty’s presence and calming attitude comforted the distressed woman. She took charge of the situation, ordering the expectant mother to breath easily through the contractions.

By the time the doctor arrived, the baby had been born, and mother and child were resting comfortably.  The pair were thoroughly examined and given clean bills of health. Patty was commended by the physician for a job well done and encouraged to enter the business.  He told her the need for her skills was in great demand and promised that she would prosper in the profession.

Patty was intrigued with the prospect, but it wasn’t until she experienced the thrill of helping to deliver another child that she decided to become a midwife.

Her education in the field would be well rounded.  She studied obstetrics under Doctor Timothy Carter, a physician in Bethel, Maine; she learned about natural herb remedies from Native Americans; and she interned with elderly midwives in the area.  Patty Bartlett Sessions devoted herself to learning all she could about natural labor and prenatal care. She earned a reputation as one of the best practitioners of her kind in the territory.

When Patty wasn’t helping to deliver babies, she and her husband were working the land on their 200-acre homestead.  With dedication and hard work, they grew their farm to include a large house, two large barns, several sheds, a sawmill, and a gristmill.  Over the course of their twenty-five-year marriage, the couple had eight children. Only three of their children lived to adulthood. Typhus fever swept through the area, claiming the lives of two of the Sessions children and countless other residents in the small farming community.

Patty dealt with the loss as best she could while continuing to serve the town as midwife.  David struggled to come to terms with the death of his offspring and sunk into deep depression.  The pair’s spirits never fully recovered.

In 1833, a group of Mormon missionaries made their camp near the Session’s home and began ministering to them.

Their message changed Patty and David’s life and brought them out of the deep pit of despair.  Close to a year later, the husband and wife adopted the Mormon religion and were baptized into the faith.  At the urging of the church leaders, David moved his family from Maine to Kirkland, Ohio. Patty’s services continued to be greatly required.  In addition to performing her daily household duties, she attended to numerous obstetrical cases. Her journal contains several entries describing the events and their outcomes, such as this account from Mary of 1836:

“Rode twelve miles last night, put Sister ______to bed, fine boy, etc.  Rode six miles and put Sister _____to bed with a pair of twins, difficult case, severe labor, but the Lord blessed us and we got through all right.  Patients safe, etc.”

In 1842, the Mormon Church leaders again called upon the Sessions family to relocate.  This time they were to go to Nauvoo, Illinois. While in Nauvoo, Patty and David met the town founder, Joseph Smith.  Smith was also the president and prophet of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. He was taken with Patty’s medical ability and the role she played as caregiver for other migrating Mormons.  In keeping with the religion’s polygamist practice, Patty accepted a proposal of marriage from Joseph Smith. On March 9, 1842, the two exchanged vows.

Smith and the Mormon Church put Patty’s skills to work, and she began teaching young wives about motherhood and the importance of a proper diet for themselves and their children.  From 1842 to 1847, the accomplished midwife assisted in bringing hundreds of babies into the Mormon family. Patty continued to provide expert services to mothers after the church made a mass exodus from the Midwest to Utah.

Patty Bartlett Sessions Smith was forty-nine when she arrived in the Great Salt Lake Basin.  Her medical duties expanded well beyond her initial training and duties as a midwife. Using a medical guide called The Family Physician, she now provided a wide variety of healthcare treatments to members of the congregation.  Those whose health she had helped restore lovingly referred to her as “Doctor Patty.”

The leaders of the Mormon Church wholeheartedly approved of Patty’s title and work, and would later encourage other females to enter the profession.  In January 1868, Brigham Young announced, “The time has come for women to come forth as doctors in these valleys.” Patty adhered to the church’s practice of healing the body using natural herbs and foliage.  She served as an officer on the Council of Health, an organization that believed that the “Creator placed in most lands medicinal plants for the cure of all diseases incident to that climate.” Patty was an expert at mixing natural concoctions that calmed the senses and eased a myriad of pains.

Throughout her life Patty maintained meticulous lists that included the activities of the Mormon Church as they made their way west, the families she assisted, the babies she helped bring into the world, the classes she taught, and the other healthcare tasks she performed from day to day.  Archivists consider her on-the-spot chronicle of the Mormon trail experience and life in early Utah a great contribution to history.

After having lost both her husbands, Joseph in 1844 and David in 1850, Patty married for a third time.  In March of 1852, she pledged her devotion to John Parry. John was the first leader of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  They were married seventeen years before he passed away.

Patty’s career as a midwife and healthcare provider crossed over several states and spanned seven decades.  In that time, she helped deliver close to 4,000 babies.

Doctor Patty died of natural causes on December 14, 1892, in Bountiful, Utah.  A biographical sketch of her life, published in the Utah Journal on the day of her death, notes the legacy she left behind:

“She lived to see her 4th generation and has left two sons, thirty-three grandchildren, one hundred and thirty-seven great grandchildren, and twenty-two great-great-grandchildren.  Total posterity, two hundred and fourteen. She was ever a true and faithful Latter-Day Saint, diligent and preserving, her whole soul, and all she possessed being devoted to the Church and the welfare of mankind.  She has gone to her grave ripe in years, loved and respected by all who knew her.”

Doctor Patty is recognized by the Mormon Church as the “Mother of Mormon Midwifery.”

Chris Enss, COWGIRL Book Editor, and a New York Times best-selling author who writes about women of the Old West.

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