Lamaze International co-founder Elisabeth Bing died at age 100 in her New York home last Friday. A refugee of Jewish background from Germany, Bing revolutionized childbirth in the United States, starting in the early 1950’s.
In recent decades, Bing was known best for the childbirth education classes she conducted for local expectant parents in the studio she ran on the main floor of her Upper West Side apartment building. But before that, Bing promoted breathing exercises in place of anesthesia during childbirth on a national level.
For the second half of the 20th century, she was one of the best-known faces of the natural childbirth movement in the United States, promoting and teaching what she preferred to call “educated childbirth.”
Born Elisabeth Dorothea Koenigsberger in a Berlin suburb in 1914, her Jewish parents converted to Protestantism before her birth.
Nonetheless, her family suffered from anti-Semitism as she was growing up. According to a New York Times obituary, two of her brothers—an historian and an architect—could not find work because of their Jewish heritage, and she herself was expelled from university just days in to her first year.
After Bing’s father died in 1932, she and most of her family moved to England. In London, she studied physiotherapy, and among her patients were women in maternity wards who were confined to bed for as long as 10 days after childbirth. Bing started to take issue with women being sedated during childbirth and having little or no control over the birth process.
During WWII, Bing pursued the study of natural childbirth independently as she worked as an ambulance driver. In 1949, she went to visit a sister who had immigrated to the US, and saw that she could help obstetricians there who were not knowledgeable about childbirth conducted in an alternative way to the standard practices of the time.
Bing ended up staying in the US and developing her practice in New York after meeting Fred Max Bing, the man who was to become her husband.
After she began giving private childbirth classes, Mount Sinai Hospital in NY approached her in 1951 about teaching at its newly opened maternity ward.
By the early 1960’s, when she was already a clinical assistant professor at New York Medical College, she and Marjorie Karmel established the American Society for Psychoprophylaxis in Obstetrics, now known as Lamaze International, to spread the childbirth approach developed by the French obstetrician Dr. Fernand Lamaze.
Although Bing encouraged women to rely on relaxation techniques to deal with labor pains, she did not negate the option of using anesthesia when necessary.
“You certainly must not feel any guilt or sense or failure if you require some medication, or if you experience discomfort,” she wrote in her 1967 book “Six Practical Lessons for an Easier Childbirth.”
In fact, she herself ended up having an epidural when she gave birth at age 40 to her only son Peter.
Bing, who wore her frizzy white hair tied back in a pony tail, and in even in her advanced years continued to moved at a clipped pace, said she never considered herself to be motivated by a feminist or political sensibility despite the revolutionary nature of her accomplishment.
She simply thought women, rather than made to lie flat on their backs with their feet in stirrups, deserved to have an active role in giving birth to their children, and that fathers should be allowed to be present and supportive in the delivery room.
The fact that new parents today know of few other ways to bring their sons and daughters into the world is testimony to just how successful Bing was.