DiversityNursing Blog

Elisabeth Bing Dies at 100; ‘Mother of Lamaze’ Changed How Babies Enter World

Posted by Erica Bettencourt

Mon, May 18, 2015 @ 11:18 AM

By KAREN BARROW

www.nytimes.com 

17BING1 obit blog427 resized 600Elisabeth Bing, who helped lead a natural childbirth movement that revolutionized how babies were born in the United States, died on Friday at her home in Manhattan. She was 100.

Her death was confirmed by her son, Peter.

Ms. Bing taught women and their spouses to make informed childbirth choices for more than 50 years. (“We don’t call it natural childbirth, but educated childbirth,” she once said.)

She began her crusade at a time when hospital rooms were often cold and impersonal, women in labor were heavily sedated and men were expected to remain in the waiting room, pacing.

Ms. Bing pushed for change. She worked directly with obstetricians, introducing them to the so-called natural childbirth methods developed by Dr. Fernand Lamaze, which incorporated relaxation techniques in lieu of anesthesia and enabled a mother to see her child coming into the world.

Along with Marjorie Karmel, Ms. Bing helped found Lamaze International, a nonprofit educational organization.

She became known as “the mother of Lamaze,” championing the technique in her book “Six Practical Lessons for an Easier Childbirth” (1967) and on the lecture and television talk-show circuits.

Today, Lamaze and other natural childbirth methods are commonplace in delivery rooms, and Lamaze classes, with their emphasis on breathing techniques, are attended by an estimated quarter of all mothers-to-be in the United States and their spouses each year.

For years Ms. Bing led classes in hospitals and in a studio in her apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where she kept a collection of pre-Columbian and later Native American fertility figurines.

Ms. Bing preferred the term “prepared childbirth” to “natural childbirth” because, she said, her goal was not to eschew drugs altogether but to empower women to make informed decisions. Her mantra was “Awake and alert,” and she saw such a birth as a transformative event in a woman’s life.

“It’s an experience that never leaves you,” she told The New York Times in 2000. “It needs absolute concentration; it takes up your whole being. And you learn to use your body correctly in a situation of stress.”

There was one secret she seldom shared, however: Her own experience giving birth to her son, Peter, was decidedly unnatural. As Randi Hutter Epstein reported in her book “Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth From the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank” (2010), she continually asked her doctor, “Is my baby all right? Is my baby all right,” until the doctor said he could not concentrate with her chatter and gave her laughing gas and an epidural.

“I got everything I raged against,” Ms. Bing told Ms. Epstein. “I had the works.”

Elisabeth Dorothea Koenigsberger was born in a suburb of Berlin on July 8, 1914. Her parents, of Jewish descent, had converted to Protestantism years before her birth, but the family nevertheless felt the virulent anti-Semitism sweeping Germany before World War II. She was kicked out of a university two days into her freshman year, and two of her brothers — a historian and an architect — could not find work because of their Jewish background, she told The Journal of Perinatal Education in 2000.

After Ms. Bing’s father died in 1932, the family left the country; most members settled in England, while one sister moved to Illinois. In London, Ms. Bing studied to become a physical therapist and began work at a hospital. Mostly she helped patients with paralysis, multiple sclerosis and broken bones, but every morning she also visited the maternity ward, to give massages to new mothers and help them exercise. At the time, women were not allowed out of bed for as many as 10 days after giving birth.

She became interested in natural childbirth in 1942 when a patient handed her Dr. Grantly Dick-Read’s influential book “Revelation of Childbirth,” published that year (and later titled “Childbirth Without Fear”). Dick-Read proposed that pain during childbirth was caused by fear, and that a woman could avoid anesthesia by following a series of relaxation techniques aimed at reducing that fear.

Ms. Bing became intrigued and hoped to train with Dick-Read in the north of England, but with the war on and travel all but impossible, she began her own independent study. She read as much as she could and observed obstetricians and their patients — heavily anesthetized women who, she saw, had little control over the birth of their children.

“What I saw I disliked intensely,” she said in her interview with the perinatal journal. “I thought there must be better ways.”

Ms. Bing, who drove an ambulance during the war, began pursuing her interest in natural childbirth after 1949, when she moved to Jacksonville, Ill., to be with her sister, who had recently married. There, while working with handicapped children, Ms. Bing met an obstetrician who, she discovered, knew very little about natural childbirth. Resolving to champion the techniques, she began approaching obstetricians and having them send patients to her for one-on-one classes.

Ms. Bing had planned to return to England in about a year and was on her way back when she stopped in New York to visit friends. There she met Fred Max Bing, an exporter’s agent, and decided to stay. The two were married in 1951.

Besides her son, Ms. Bing is survived by a granddaughter. Her husband died in 1984.

In New York, Ms. Bing again started giving private childbirth education classes. They caught the attention of Dr. Alan Guttmacher, the chief of obstetrics at Mount Sinai Hospital, which had opened its first maternity ward in 1951. He asked her to teach a formal class there.

In her search for other childbirth alternatives, Ms. Bing began to learn about the psychoprophylactic method developed in the mid-1950s by Lamaze, a French obstetrician. Lamaze refined Dick-Read’s approach by incorporating breathing exercises he had observed in the Soviet Union, where anesthesia was a luxury poor women in labor could scarcely afford.

In 1960, Ms. Bing, by then a clinical assistant professor at New York Medical College, and Ms. Karmel founded the American Society for Psychoprophylaxis in Obstetrics, known today as Lamaze International.

Ms. Karmel, an American, had become a natural-childbirth crusader after seeking out Lamaze in Paris to help her deliver her first child, and her best-selling book, “Thank You, Dr. Lamaze” (1959), largely introduced the method to Americans and drew Ms. Bing’s attention.

(In the late 1950s, Ms. Bing had persuaded Ms. Karmel to smuggle into the United States an explicit French educational film, “Naissance,” depicting a woman giving natural birth. When New York City hospitals and the 92nd Street Y refused to show it in prenatal classes — they considered it obscene — the two women held a private screening at Ms. Karmel’s home on the Upper East Side. Ms. Karmel died of breast cancer in 1964.

At the heart of the methods the women promoted was the idea of family teamwork, with the father helping the mother by coaching her in responding to her contractions with breathing exercises and massaging her back, and being present during the delivery.

But in her book, Ms. Bing cautioned, “You certainly must not feel any guilt or sense of failure if you require some medication, or if you experience discomfort or pain.”

Some obstetricians were skeptical of the methods and thought Ms. Bing, not being a physician, was ill qualified to be instructing patients. But the natural-childbirth movement found a receptive public. Women coming of age in the 1960s embraced the idea of taking a more active role in childbirth and wanted fathers to participate more as well.

“It was a tremendous cultural revolution that changed obstetrics entirely,” Ms. Bing said in an interview in 1988.

Ms. Bing was modest about her role in the movement. “It wasn’t really a movement by Lamaze or Read or me,” she told the Disney-owned website Family.com. “It was a consumer movement. The time was ripe. The public doubted everything their parents had done.”

But she rejoiced in the outcome. “We are not being tied down anymore,” she said in 2000. “We’re not lying flat on our backs with our legs in the air, shaved like a baby. You can give birth in any position you like. The father, or anybody else, can be there. We fought for years on end for that. And now it’s commonplace. We’ve got it all.”

Lamaze, himself, did not acknowledge Ms. Bing, never responding to her requests for an interview even though she had made his name part of the American vernacular. During their only meeting, at a lunch in New York, he directed all his comments to a male obstetrician at the table.

“I’ve never thought of myself as someone with a legacy of any kind,” Ms. Bing said in an interview at an Upper West Side cafe. “I hope I have made women aware that they have choices, they can get to know their body and trust their body.”

“If my ideas supported feminist ideas,” she continued, “well, that’s all right. But I’ve never been politically active.”

Topics: birth, newborn, health, baby, pregnant, pregnancy, nurse, medical, hospital, patient, treatment, doctor, babies, Elisabeth Bing, lamaze

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