Halldora Gudmundsdottir Olson was 4 when her mother died birthing child No. 8 in their Icelandic farmhouse. Halldora went to live with an aunt, who eventually taught her the art and science of midwifery.
We don’t know if her childhood story prompted Olson’s career in obstetrics. But 50 years later, she would become Duluth’s most prodigious midwife, opening a maternity hospital in her home that catered to poor and unmarried mothers. Many of her patients worked as cooks and maids at her 12-bed home hospital to pay their way as they awaited babies.
In an era when home births were still the norm, a 1907 Duluth News Tribune story reported that Olson — “the oldest and most popular midwife at the head of the lakes” — had delivered 1,100 babies, including “at least 112” in that year alone.
“The majority of cases which come under her care are those of women and girls who are financially unable to meet the greater expenses charged at larger institutions,” the paper reported in 1912, when Olson was 57. “Many of these come from districts where proper medical aid and care cannot be secured.”
Her institution was “thoroughly modern,” the newspaper said, “a private home for women expecting to be confined that affords each one the comforts of home.”
Not some back-alley clinic for wayward girls, Olson’s maternity hospital on Duluth’s west side, 329 N. 58th Av. W., included a prominent minister and alderman as fundraising trustees.
“The story within the family was that Halldora had never lost either a mother or child — which is hard to believe even if she was a remarkable midwife,” said Gordon Krantz, 90, a long-retired psychologist who stumbled across Olson amid some genealogy research.
“Halldora was the great-grandmother of my first wife,” explained Krantz, who used the Icelandic Roots database to trace a line of Halldora’s lineage to the 600s.
Krantz has unearthed some old photographs of the busy midwife, her jaw square and eyes piercing. “She was formidable,” Krantz said. “There’s a chapter about her in a book written in Icelandic about famous Icelandic women.”
Born Aug. 5, 1855, on the Icelandic farm called Ellida, Halldora married when she was 19. Neighbors came to the wedding on foot and ponies because Iceland featured few roads or bridges in the 1870s. A late-September storm crashed the wedding. According to Krantz, guests were forced to stay for three days and the storm is still known as “Halidoru Bylur” or Halldora’s Storm.
“It was said that storm had been conjured up by one of Halldora’s disappointed suitors,” Krantz said.
Only two of Olson’s five children survived beyond infancy or early childhood. One drowned in a brook near their farm. With some of Iceland’s worst volcanoes prompting mass migration, Halldora, husband Siggeir Olafson (Olson) and their sons Thorgeir and Olafur (Oliver) set sail aboard the S.S. Camoens.
They were heading for Winnipeg, where many Icelanders settled, but wound up in Washington Harbor, Wis., for a year. After three years in Winnipeg, they arrived in Duluth — which boasted a large Icelandic contingent.
In 1891, William Mayo and Minnesota lawmakers began requiring midwives to register. Olson was among the first Duluth midwives to do so and she became the first to have her maternity hospital win city certification.
Siggeir and Halldora lived downstairs off a front parlor closed off with velvet curtains. A small twin bed in their bedroom was used for babies requiring special care.
Ten small rooms upstairs included small bathrooms and a shared bathtub. An Icelandic handyman named John Ardahl lived in a backroom and took the back yard cow out to a pasture every day on his way to work at the rail yards in Proctor. He would bring the cow home at night.
That might sound old school, but Olson was forward looking. Minnesota law barred midwives from using forceps, so in 1900 she patented an “obstetrical appliance” made of ribbon designed to go around the newborn’s jaw in the birth canal. The midwife would then pull on ribbon loops to help get the baby out.
Olson did get in trouble during World War I, when government officials began requiring that all births be registered with the health board within five days. She was jailed briefly in 1917 and released on bail after some paperwork from a birth dragged on for 14 days.
That was an anomaly on a spick-and-span record that included membership in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and a home across the street from her Westminster Presbyterian Church. Olson donated a reed and electric organ to the church and purchased a piano for a granddaughter.
One of her sons, Oliver, became an established Morgan Park physician, who balked at his mother’s antiquated practice of bloodletting in which she’d cut a small incision in the leg and cover it with a small suction cup to draw out perceived contagions — a popular form of medicine for centuries.
According to family lore, Sunday chicken dinners would rotate between her house and her sons’. After her husband died, Halldora moved in with her son, Oliver, the doctor. Her granddaughter, Nedra, went to show her some earrings on Oct. 28, 1921, and found her dead at age 66. She’s buried beside her husband at the Oneota Cemetery, according to the www.zenithcity.com website — a great historical resource for all things Duluth.
Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history appears each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.