“The wife’s Handbook” by H. Arthur Allbutt (23rd Edition, 1894)
inside cover of “The Wife’s Handbook” by H. Arthur Allbutt (23rd Edition, 1894)

The Wife’s Handbook” was a publication by Leeds-based physician Henry Arthur Allbutt (known as Albert) advising women on what to expect in pregnancy, birth and the newborn phase. It is specifically marketed at married women in order to not fall foul of indecency laws and social norms at the time. Although Albutt’s advice and practices are not entirely what birthing parents might hope for today, it was informative and open for the time. It sold very well and had many repeat prints. However, it was unpopular with the medical profession, primarily because of Chapter 7, which discussed methods of contraception, and because it contained adverts for contraceptive products, some of which Allbutt had designed himself.

It was reported in the British Medical Journal in 1887 that the Leeds Vigilance Association had asked the Edinburgh College of Physicians and the UK Medical Council to look into this publication. It was reported that “the pamphlet was extensively sold, and that, besides containing much that was offensive to taste and professionally objectionable, it taught how sexual intercourse might be indulged in without fear of pregnancy supervening, but it did not distinctly recommend that kind of indulgence unless avoidance of pregnancy was advised by the doctor” (BMJ, 26 Nov 1887, p.1162).

It was then discussed whether Allbutt should be removed from the medical profession entirely for bring it into disrepute, promoting Malthusian ideas (which involved restricting population growth), and encouraging immoral behaviour. Allbutt and his council argued that the book was intended for married people, and would save women from having too many pregnancies (which was high-risk), and reduce overpopulation and poverty. Allbutt was struck off the medical register, but continued to sign “M.R.C.P” after his name (showing he’d qualified with the Royal College of Physicians).

The Wife’s Handbook book is one of the items held in the collection at the library at the Thackray Museum of Medicine.