Poverty, inaccessible health care and poor sanitation made Arizona a dangerous place for a baby to be born for most of the 20 th century, especially for Hispanics.
At its peak in 1922, Arizona’s infant mortality rate was the second highest in the nation. For every 1,000 babies born here, 145 died before reaching their first birthday. For Hispanics, the rate was 200.
The situation didn’t improve until the 1950s, when a group of nurses led by Dr. Pearl Tang, then director of the Maricopa County Health Department, began making house calls. Tang lives in Scottsdale.
"These women were really amazing," said Arizona Historical Society curator Mary Melcher, who has studied the history of birthing in the West and who will discuss her research today at Mesa Public Library. "They set up clinics in American Legion Buildings, and, in Gila Bend, they examined women in an old jail. They tried to set up clinics wherever they could."
Federal grant money awarded to the state in 1922 was supposed to decrease the infant mortality rate by funding efforts to monitor midwives, establish prenatal care and educate women about what to look for in a doctor or a midwife. But when Dr. Tang arrived on the scene, she discovered that although the infant mortality rate had declined somewhat, it was still one of the highest in the nation.
She discovered a correlation between a lack of prenatal care and premature births, which was a leading cause of infant death. So, Tang and her nurses set up a network of clinics. Members of women’s clubs volunteered to do clerical work. They set up a records system to help patients and doctors keep track of medical histories.
And, the Chinese-born Tang and her nurses learned Spanish in the evenings at Phoenix Union High School so they could communicate with Hispanic mothers and children.
Her efforts eventually paid off. By the 1970s, the state’s infant mortality rate dropped below the national average. In 2001, there were 6.9 infant deaths for every 1,000 born. For Hispanics, that number dropped to 6.7 per 1,000.
"When you’re faced with the needs, you have to do something," said Dr. Tang, who credits the doctors and nurses who worked with her.
What: "Giving Birth in the West: Mothers, Midwives and Babies," presented by Mary Melcher, history curator at the Arizona Historical Society
When: Noon to 1 p.m., March 25
Where: Saguaro Room, Mesa Public Library, 64 E. First St.
Information: (480) 644-2207