Also called child bed fever, puerperal fever, puerperal exhaustion, metritis or purpura. Puerperal means “childbearing.” Death is caused by bacterial infection during and after the process of birth. In the late 1800’s the disease was considered to be a common and dreaded consequence of motherhood.
Prior to the advent of hospitals nationwide in the 1930’s and 40’s, most women gave birth at home with a midwife in attendance. In the l800’s childbirth was second only to tuberculosis as the leading cause of death in women in their childbearing years.
Infection, post partum, was a common problem. The infection may have been generated by the trauma of birth, the hand that examined the woman giving birth, or exposure to an environment that was dirty or septic.
Surgical intervention, when needed, for childbirth was generally performed by the barber surgeons of the time. Infant mortality for cesarean section was near 100%. The mother, if she survived, was often debilitated. Surgical intervention was also a leading cause of puerperal fever.
The possibility also existed for the woman to hemorrhage to death or to die from convulsions or “fits”.
Post partum blood clots in the legs might also cause death and be listed on the death certificate as milk leg.