A local hero and pioneer of modern midwifery, Elsie Cressman led what author Nancy Silcox aptly calls a “trailblazing life,” in her biographical book about a remarkably unconventional Old Order Mennonite from Wilmot Township who delivered thousands of babies during her lifetime.
A motor scooter-riding, gun-toting, nurse-adventurer in Africa and a pioneer for midwifery in Ontario, Cressman’s story was one that needed to be told in detail by Silcox, a writer and journalist, who met Cressman during an interview near the end of her life.
“When I arrived at this apartment and knocked I heard this voice ‘come in, I can’t get up.’ I opened the door and walked into Elsie Cressman’s life. Little could I have guessed at that point how deep into her life I would walk over the next couple of years,” Silcox said at a presentation for the Waterloo Historical Society March 9.
Born to a local conservative Mennonite bishop and his wife, an American Amish woman from Missouri, Cressman was the middle child of three and showed signs of a nurturing personality and an independent spirit early on.
By the time Cressman became a midwife and headed the effort to organize a midwifery clinic in St. Jacobs, she was in her fifties with a slew of adventures behind her.
Cressman spent her teen years as a boarder at the Ontario Bible College in Fort Erie, where she settled on pursuing a nursing career. After graduating she enrolled in the nursing program at St. Mary’s Hospital in Kitchener and quickly found her calling in the maternity ward where she honed many of her strong beliefs about the birthing process.
Cressman told Silcox, in one of their many interviews over the span of a year, how doctors would use ether or chloroform on women in labour, a practice she began to disapprove of, arguing that it dulled the experience of childbirth and took control away from the expectant mothers.She took this belief with her during her work, first as a nurse at a Mennonite hospital in Colorado, then as a nurse at a Kansas City children’s home.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in science from Goshen Mennonite College in the 1940s, she set her sights on Africa.
A Mennonite medical mission in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) hired her to run a leprosarium. An effective treatment had been developed by then, and Cressman spent decades caring for up to 400 patients at a time. She got herself a gun and a motorized scooter to traverse the muddy roads – more than a little unusual considering her conservative upbringing – and began delivering babies along the way. When Tanzanian locals started to take over the clinic she headed for England to train as a midwife.
“Nothing made me happier than seeing young mothers happy,” Cressman said to Silcox in a past interview.
Cressman then made her way home and started the St. Jacobs midwifery clinic with local supporters in tow.
The practice of midwifery was not recognized as a health profession until the Midwifery Act in 1994, by which time Cressman, now in her fifties, had spent most of her career stoically rebelling against the established conventions. That included the common practice of hospital births that saw doctors in full control and left mothers, in Cressman’s view, without a say in the matter.
“She was a driving force,” Silcox said.
“But I don’t want people to think that she was driven to have a career. That wasn’t it. She was driven by the belief that she needed to help women deliver babies the way they wanted to deliver them,” Silcox said in an interview.
Always wanting but never having children of her own, she delivered thousands of babies all over the world. Her life was not without heartbreaking hardships, either. In the 1990s, shortly after retirement, Cressman was sued due to problems experienced by a child she had delivered 13 years before.
Many of her admirers and colleagues see her as a battering-ram for the establishment of midwifery in Ontario, her name still on many lips of the staff at the local midwifery clinic. She was recently inducted into the Waterloo County Hall of Fame and named woman of the year by the Zonta Club of Kitchener-Waterloo.
In her 80s Cressman returned to the leprosarium she had overseen years before as the subject of a documentary (Return to Africa: The Story of Elsie Cressman.) She didn’t live to see her biography, Elsie Cressman: A Trailblazing Life, get published, having passed away in September 2012, just weeks before the book came out.
“This is a woman who bucked conventionality and went against the mainstream. She was formidable,” Silcox said.