Cesareans in History And Literature

There are numerous engravings, etchings, woodcuts, and other evidence from a wide variety of countries showing that cesarean sections have been performed throughout history. Apparently the oldest description of a cesarean section was found in Mesopotamia on a cuneiform tablet dating back to sometime in the 2nd millennium BCE.

During Roman times, in an effort to save the baby, both Roman and Jewish law required cesareans to be performed if the mother was already dead or dying.


Asclepius, the Greek god of healing was apparently born by a cesarean section performed by his father, the god Apollo. The cesarean operation was reputedly called after Julius Caesar's son Caesarion, by Cleopatra, as he was apparently born in this way.

The Roman author and philosopher, Pliny the Elder believed that having been born by cesarean was an auspicious sign. From the baby's point of view it was certainly fortuitous to be born this way, as the alternative would've been not to be born at all.


In literature and folk lore there are several examples of cesarean sections. The 12th century hero, Tristan, in the legend of Tristan and Isolde, was apparently born in this way. In Shakespeare's play Macbeth, the man who killed Macbeth, Macduff was "out of his mother's womb untimely ripped", i.e. born by cesarean section. There is even a play by a contemporary of Shakespeare dealing with the story of Queen Jane - Samuel Rowley's "When You See Me, You Know Me" (1605).

Queen Jane, the third wife of Henry VIII, "lay in labor for six days and nights, the women grew weary..." according to a folk song and Queen Jane pleaded "King Henry, King Henry, if that's who you be, please pierce my side open and save my baby".

There is certainly very strong evidence that Henry VIII ordered a cesarean section, to save the life of his son - the future Edward VI, whether at the behest of his wife or not isn't known. Of course in those days, this operation resulted in almost certain death for the woman, and Queen Jane died some 12 days later of complications.


The first written evidence in Europe of a woman surviving the procedure comes in 1500 when a Swiss farmer operated on his wife. She apparently went on to have several more children in the normal way. However there are woodcuts illustrating the operation on women who appear to be alive going back to at least the 14 century CE.

19th Century

By the 19th century the medical profession became more skilled. The first known successful cesarean section in the United States, where the woman remained alive, was performed by Dr Prevost in Donaldsonville, La in 1824. He may possibly have heard about the successful cesareans performed by Dr James Miranda Stuart Barry, a British army surgeon, in South Africa. Dr Barry was actually a woman in disguise and performed the operation sometime between 1815 and 1821.

Perhaps Dr Barry, being in Africa, learned some of her skills from Africans. There are many tales of successful operations being performed in what is today Uganda and Rwanda. One of these procedures was witnessed in 1879 by a British traveler and illustrated in a woodcut. These skilled practitioners used local botanicals as anesthetics and in wound dressings and obviously had a lot of experience.

Today cesareans have become so routine that many women are opting to have this serious operation in preference to birthing naturally.

Login to comment

Post a comment