Birthing Room Pioneer

When Philip Sumner, M55, started as an obstetrician, expectant mothers were put under general anesthesia. He decided there was a better way.

Philip Sumner

Philip Sumner, M55, had two traits that would serve him well—he was tough-minded, and he was a salesman. The toughness came from serving as an 18-year-old machine gunner under Gen. George Patton in World War II. The salesmanship was always there.

Sumner, now 85, occupied the hinge of an American cultural shift, both within his field and on a larger scale—he created the first birthing room in an American hospital, and ushered in an entirely new experience in labor and delivery for American mothers.

Tufts Now: As an obstetrician/gynecologist, how would you describe your field in the early 1960s?

Philip Sumner: Remember that the Baby Boom came along in the late 1940s and 1950s. In order to handle all those babies efficiently, the medical community adopted a policy that was organized like Henry Ford’s assembly line. Women were medicated. The mother was totally unconscious when she delivered, and the father was out in the waiting room or at the local tavern having a couple of beers.

When did you first see another approach?

In the middle of the 1960s, I had been in practice only about five or six years. Since I had been to a French university for four months [at the end of World War II] and had a friend there, I decided to go to Paris to see what this Lamaze method was that I had been hearing about. This was 1967.

Well, I went to the Lamaze Clinic, and I was thunderstruck by what I saw. It was a revelation. I saw women in advanced labor, and at no point did they ever lose control of themselves. They were working hard, but they were not fearful. I talked with the women, and they smiled and talked with me.

The essential elements of the program were not only the birthing bed, where the mother could both labor and deliver, but the verbal support she got from the nurse and her husband, and from the doctor. It was a team effort, which was a beautiful thing to watch. I had to debate whether I would try and introduce this to the U.S., because I knew I would encounter significant resistance. Finally, I decided I would give my full weight and devotion to the concept and let the chips fall where they may.

What response did you find back at your home hospital in Connecticut?

My colleagues were all opposed to what I was attempting to do. When I got home, I told my partner what I had seen, and he was very skeptical. I informed the hospital administrator that I needed a birthing room and a French labor and delivery bed. There was no such thing in America—they weren’t even thinking about it.

We raised the money to buy the bed, which cost about $5,000, from the French manufacturer. In April 1969 we christened it at Manchester Memorial Hospital as part of the first birthing room in America. The room was successful from the moment it opened. 

Did you try to spread the word nationally?

I did. I published on the topic, and I spoke at conferences all over. For example, there was an annual ob/gyn conference, and I had a booth there, with pictures documenting the appropriateness and validity of the birthing room. The doctors ridiculed me as they went by. They saw me basically as a pain in the neck.

To this day, I have not received a single word from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to recognize the fact that I introduced a change into obstetrics that is now standard throughout the country.

How satisfied are you with the current birthing room movement?

One of the major problems that we’re running into is that within the birthing room environment, all these medical procedures continue to interfere with the normal progress of labor. First, the mother is horizontal, when she should be vertical. Then she’s got all these medical devices on her—fetal monitors, epidural catheters on her back, blood pressure cuffs…

Are you saying that even in hospitals that have birthing rooms, there’s still a lot of intrusive medical paraphernalia?

Exactly. That’s a big problem today.


This article first appeared in the spring 2011 issue of Tufts Medicine magazine.

Bruce Morgan can be reached at



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