birth

The Birth of an Explorer - Alegra Ally

Photo:  Alegra Ally ,  Wild Born Project . From “ Women at the End of the Land ” expedition to the Yamal Peninsula.

Photo: Alegra Ally, Wild Born Project. From “Women at the End of the Land” expedition to the Yamal Peninsula.

I would sit in a classroom and I would daydream about me just going and disappearing in a jungle and living with a tribe....These are the most memorable moments of my childhood.
— Alegra Ally

This week, I bring you this much anticipated conversation with ethnographer and award-winning photographer and explorer Alegra Ally. Via her Wild Born Project, Alegra has traveled to the far-flung corners of the globe to document the traditional ecological knowledge of indigenous motherhood—from pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding to rite-of-passage rituals for young girls.

This year, Alegra became a new mother herself. She spoke to me from her native Israel, where she and her husband (free diver and photographer Erez Beatus) were enjoying time with family before embarking with their baby son on their next adventure. For Alegra, the drive to explore seems inborn; here, she shares the remarkable story of her first solo expedition to Papua New Guinea at the age of 17, the near improbable logistics of photographing remote tribal birth, and the “superhuman” power she’s found in the wake of new motherhood.

Here’s the run-down:

  • Traveling to Tonga as a new mother

  • Alegra’s own experience of birth

  • Working as a diving instructor, early travels and how she met Erez

  • Her childhood in Israel, and “planning” her first expedition at age 11

  • Her first solo expedition to Papua New Guinea at age 17

  • The spiritual and intuitive search that led her to Wild Born

  • How she documents indigenous motherhood: the logistics

  • Her forthcoming book, her new nonprofit, and what’s next for Alegra and Wild Born

Photo:  Alegra Ally

Learn more about Alegra (and see her amazing photographs) on her personal and Wild Born Project websites. And don’t miss her must-follow Instagram accounts: @alegraally and @wildbornproject.

Photo:  Alegra Ally ,  Wild Born Project . From “ Women at the End of the Land ” expedition to the Yamal Peninsula.

Photo: Alegra Ally, Wild Born Project. From “Women at the End of the Land” expedition to the Yamal Peninsula.

Photo:  Alegra Ally ,  Wild Born Project . From “ Walking with the Himba ” expedition to Namibia.

Photo: Alegra Ally, Wild Born Project. From “Walking with the Himba” expedition to Namibia.

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The Astonishing American History of Cesarean Section - Jacqueline H. Wolf

Top right, of Jacqueline H. Wolf: Photo credit Joel Prince. Bottom right: Illustration via Wikimedia Commons.

Top right, of Jacqueline H. Wolf: Photo credit Joel Prince. Bottom right: Illustration via Wikimedia Commons.

How, in the modern era, can we perceive so many human births as running into trouble that we have to perform major abdominal surgery in order to make that birth happen?
— Jacqueline H. Wolf

In 19th-century America, cesarean section was a treacherous, last-ditch surgery that nearly always resulted in death of the infant and, half the time, the mother. Fast forward to today, where 1 in 3 American babies is delivered via surgical birth. But even until the 1960s, cesarean section was virtually unknown to the American public, says my guest today, historian Jacqueline H. Wolf, the author of the riveting new book Cesarean Section: An American History of Risk, Technology, and Consequence. The book, which will be published this May by Johns Hopkins University Press, was funded by a three-year-grant from the National Institutes of Health. In it, Professor Wolf unfolds an astounding story: How, over the span of a mere century (and most rapidly, a few decades), industrialized America normalized surgery as the means of bringing babies into the world.

Some of you may recognize Jackie Wolf’s name from my book Unlatched (where she transported us to the death-by-artificial-infant-feeding epidemic of Industrial Age America). As a professor of the History of Medicine in the Department of Social Medicine at Ohio University, she is one of the foremost authorities on the history of breastfeeding and birth practices in the United States, having authored two prior books and numerous articles on the subjects in venues such as the American Journal of Public Health, Journal of Social History, and The Milbank Quarterly. I was captivated by my conversations with Jackie back then, and I hope you’ll be as captivated as I was by this one, here: From the story of the first cesarean in recorded American history, the myth of Julius Caesar and the racially charged past of early cesareans; to the rise of birth as a pathological process, Jackie Kennedy's role in all this, reclaiming birth in the 21st century (including how to avoid your own C-section) and more, you won’t want to miss this episode! 

Here's some of what we talked about:

  • Jackie’s work as a medical historian, and the path that led her to write Cesarean Section: An American History of Risk, Technology, and Consequence

  • Delving into the history of “thousands of accounts of birth” back to the 18th century

  • Cesarean sections in antiquity and the myth of Julius Caesar

  • “Sacrificial midwifery”

  • The astounding story of the very first recorded cesarean in US history

  • Cesarean sections and slavery

  • Vaginal birth of “a double monster” and the “highly unusual” circumstances of early cesareans

  • Historical birth as a social event

  • The truth about maternal mortality through the ages

  • The hospitalization of birth

  • John Wittridge Williams, Joseph DeLee, “prophylactic forceps,” and the rise of birth as a pathological process

  • Jackie Kennedy

  • How the electronic fetal monitor changed everything

  • The three major ways to avoid a cesarean section

  • Elective c-sections and our “don’t shame me” culture

  • Why labor is really really good for babies: the science

  • Jackie’s vision for the future

An American History of Risk, Technology, and Consequence will be released in May (pre-order here and below). Want to learn more about Jackie and her work? Check out her professor page at Ohio University. Jackie is also the host of the forthcoming WOUB (NPR) radio show "Lifespan." Check it out on iTunes here

If you enjoyed this show, subscribe on iTunes so you don’t miss the next one (and don’t forget to leave a rating and review). The theme music is by Paul Damian Hogan. Want to chime in on this episode or have an idea for a future show? Connect with me via my Instagram page, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Jackie's books:

Resources

From     Cesarean Section: An American History of Risk, Technology, and Consequence     (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). Credit Jacqueline H. Wolf and Kevin S. Wolf

From Cesarean Section: An American History of Risk, Technology, and Consequence (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). Credit Jacqueline H. Wolf and Kevin S. Wolf