Gritty tale of Seattle pioneer midwife written by WSU nurse

By Alli Benjamin, College of Nursing

Fleming-80SPOKANE, Wash. – Intricate birth stories of interest to midwives, nurses, doctors and students combine with rugged Seattle pioneer history and some fictional characters in a new book by Washington State University assistant professor of nursing Susan Fleming.

She will read from her first book, “Seattle Pioneer Midwife: Alice Ada Wood Ellis – Midwife, Nurse & Mother to All,” at 7 p.m. March 6 at Auntie’s Book Store in Spokane and 7 p.m. April 11 at University Book Store in Seattle.

Evolution of birthing practice

In the early 1900s, 95 percent of childbirths in the U.S. occurred in the home, and it was common for family members to help with birthing. This was true of author Fleming’s great-grandmother Alice Ada Wood Ellis, a midwife practicing out of her home in Green Lake (north Seattle) at the turn of the 20th century.

midwife-book-200In her book, Fleming walks readers through various chapters of Ellis’ life, along with stories of the author’s own children, patients and their newborns, and fellow health professionals. The book blends Ellis’ birthing stories with historical figures and data. Some fiction was added to supplement the depiction of life as a pioneer midwife, nurse and caregiver.

Ellis’ stories were passed down through Fleming’s family over the years, and the author wove in coinciding historical events and milestones: women’s suffrage; the bubonic plague; the Alaska Klondike gold rush. These often-gritty stories help readers understand birthing and how the field of nursing has evolved in the last 100-plus years.

Tales of pioneer ancestor

“I have been writing this book in my head since 1967 when, as a 10-year-old, I traveled to Seattle for two months with my grandmother Marie,” said Fleming. “I was totally fascinated with the stories she told me about her mother.

“In 1982, I attended nursing school three miles from where my grandmother Marie lived, and once again we were able to spend hours discussing birth stories and her mother,” Fleming said.

The book begins with Ellis traveling to Seattle in 1900 with her two young daughters. Her parents built two homes in Green Lake so they could live next to Ellis. She placed two beds in her front parlor and helped area women with childbirth.

As a single mother, Ellis needed an income. Seattle was rich with prostitutes – often affluent – and she saw an opportunity care for them when they prepared for labor and delivery. Fleming articulates the dark side of their lifestyle and their pain, suffering and sorrow in childbirth.

About the author

Fleming is a perinatal (childbirth) clinical nurse specialist for the WSU College of Nursing. She has been a registered nurse for more than 30 years and has worked with moms and babies since the 1970s. She teaches nursing students and researches birthing and technology.

She earned her Ph.D. from WSU in 2011; for her dissertation, she interviewed childbearing women about their birthing experiences. Read her profile at

Find more about the book at Purchase it online at

Find more about the WSU College of Nursing at



Susan Fleming, WSU College of Nursing, 509-324-7415,

Allison Benjamin, WSU College of Nursing communications, 509-324-7340, text/cell 509-230-3520,