Iris Wolfson

“Women need to understand that they should trust themselves. No one knows better than us what we need, and who we are, and what comes from within.”

Interviewed by Judy Waxman, Oral Historian, April 2023

JW:  Iris, would you please introduce yourself and tell us when and where you were born?

IW:   This is Iris Wolfson, I was born right here in Philadelphia, August 13, 1946. Long time ago.

JW:  Tell us briefly about your childhood, your ethnic background, siblings. What kinds of influence do you think there was that led you to the career you took?

IW:   Well, good question. My mom was sick a lot of my growing up, and I think that probably led me towards a health care professional. What I actually really wanted to do was to be a social worker, but my parents couldn’t afford college. I did get a scholarship to nursing school, so that kind of pushed me in that direction.

I had an older sister and a younger brother, so I was a middle child. We grew up in southwest Philadelphia, which was kind of a rough area until I was around nine. Then we moved into Mount Airy, which was an up-and-coming area of Philadelphia at the time.

JW:  You went to nursing school, but you got interested in women’s health, right?

IW:   I did, right from the get go. I won an award for maternal child health and psychiatric nursing when I graduated from nursing school. I actually wanted to go right into labor and delivery, but there were no openings when I graduated. So, I worked in medical surgical unit for a little bit, and then I started to teach childbirth education classes because I was always very interested in childbirth. I remember in nursing school I did a paper on natural childbirth, which back in the 60s, was not very prevalent. It was kind of always my interest. Women’s health and birth, so that’s kind of how I pursued it.

JW:  But you did get into birth stuff after your medical surgery years.

IW:   I did. I did a stint in med surg for about a year, which was enough. And then I became a childbirth educator and taught childbirth education classes. I remember working part time in an abortion clinic when abortion was not even yet quite legal. I believe it was 1973, maybe.

JW:  That’s when it became legal.

IW:   Yes, 1972, ’73. There was a clinic that opened in Philadelphia, and I felt like I wanted to support the effort. I remember starting as a volunteer. I volunteered as a counselor, and then I wound up working in the clinic before I went to Scotland to become a midwife.

JW:  What clinic was that? I’m just curious.

IW:   I think it was called, Philadelphia Family Planning? I don’t remember. I think it had Philadelphia in its name, but it was the first clinic in Philadelphia to offer abortion services. And it was just abortion. That was the whole clinic. That’s all that they did. And it was one of the most wonderful places I ever worked because everybody was on the same page, and we were all wanting to help women have what they needed to have. I remember I just loved working there.

JW:  Did you actually perform any abortions or not at that time?

IW:   No, I did not. No. I assisted with the physicians, but I was a nurse, and we didn’t do abortions.

JW:  You went on to midwife school?  This is what year would you say?

IW:   I went to midwifery school in 1974. I went to Scotland to study midwifery, because I just thought it was where the art of midwifery grew. And unfortunately, we were in Edinburgh, and it was not at all what I had anticipated it to be. It was very hierarchical. You almost had to salute the doctors.

It was a very different experience than what I had hoped for, and I quit the program because it was just not what I wanted. Instead, I went to the art college and I studied tapestry weaving and ceramic arts and lived in Scotland for about three years. It was when I came back from Scotland, that I applied to midwifery school here in the States. So, I didn’t get my midwifery degree until ’80 or ’81.

JW:  And was that in Philadelphia also?

IW:   That was in Newark. The University of Medicine in Newark, New Jersey.

JW:  Well, not too far, but not super close either.

IW:   It was tough because I had a little baby. I had a young child, a one-year-old, and I was taking the train to and from. I’d try and do all my studying on the train, and then I’d come home, and I had this little one year old to deal with. It was a great experience, actually, much better than the experience in Scotland.

JW:  So, I believe you told me you did home births. Was that right from the beginning?

IW:   I started to do home birth before I went to midwifery school. When I came back from living in Scotland in 1976, I started to teach childbirth classes, and I worked in a local hospital as a health educator for their maternal infant care project. And there, I met someone who was doing home births and I was very interested. That was why I went to Scotland, because I wanted to do home births.

I got together with her and several other young women who were teaching childbirth education classes for a group called the association for Childbirth at Home, and we supported each other. I was the only real medical person in the crew. I was the nurse. The others were lay midwives. We were teaching each other, really.

We had a wonderful physician at the time, who had done home births himself, and he supported us. So, he helped to teach us, and we taught each other and we were learning and working at the same time and supporting women who wanted to have home births. So, I started doing home births in 1976, and it wasn’t until ’81 that I got the actual midwifery degree.

JW:  I see. Obviously, people were not nervous about doing it at home.

IW:   No. They were people who were clear that’s what they wanted. They really didn’t want the hospital experience and I understood that. I had worked in hospitals and saw what happened there, so I was happy to support their choices.

JW:  And they went well, I’ll assume.

IW:   For the most part. Care was taken in screening women and families who were of low risk with no complicating factors. There obviously are times when things go wrong, and I always had backup plans and emergency plans if they were needed. I always carried emergency equipment with me, and I did it in as safe a way as possible. I loved those years. There is something about delivering a baby in the home and in the bed where it was conceived that’s just very special for families, as well as for their care providers. I feel very fortunate to have been able to help so many families to birth in such a women and family centered empowering approach. I was blessed indeed to have my own two babies born at home.

JW:  With friends delivering.

IW:   Yes. My midwifery pals.

JW:  That’s super. So, then you got your actual certificate, I guess it’s called midwifery.

IW:   Yes, exactly.

JW:  And did your practice change then, at that point?

IW:   It changed only in that I no longer saw patients in my home at the time. I had a little office then, and I also was able to offer gynecologic services, which I hadn’t really done before because I wasn’t educated in that at all. I was only educated in birth. So, it expanded my ability to support women in gynecology as well.

My practice always involved nutrient support and herbal support and homeopathy. My [bent] has always been alternative medicine, integrating it with Western medicine when needed. But my go-to is alternative, so I was pretty skilled and knowledgeable, I would say, about how to deal with things in a way that was not strictly Allopathic Western medicine.

JW:  I see. Like what? Give us an example.

IW:   Well, if someone had, say, instead of a yeast infection, or a bacterial infection, garlic is a very good source of antibacterial and antifungal healing. And then there are herbal douches that can be done. And there’s nutrient supports, vitamin A for mucous membrane health, and vitamin D for immune support. A number of different things that can be utilized. Energy balancing, lifestyle changes, homeopathy as well, which is another whole system of medicine.

JW:  It’s more natural products, is what I’m hearing you say.

IW:   Exactly. To support the body’s own ability to heal itself. I’ve always been a proponent of the body’s wisdom and ability to self heal. That we can heal our own bodies given the right time, place, and supports. That’s always my first go to. Sometimes you need other things, and I’m open to that as well. But I always like to support the body’s own ability to heal itself first.

JW:  And when you say homeopathy, were you trained in that as well?

IW:   I did a number of different workshops, and so it was through the workshops in women’s health care that I learned most of what I know about homeopathy, as well as through self study and working with it, through trial and error.

JW:  So, after you didn’t want to do home birth anymore, or did you continue home birth? I’m not quite sure of the phenomenon.

IW:   I did home births for probably 30 years. Towards the end of my birth practice, I also incorporated hospital births, because I had a number of patients that I had seen through the years for gynecology, who either risked out of home birth, or weren’t comfortable with home birth that I wanted to support. And so, I also offered hospital birth for about the last ten years of my practice.

JW:  Once hospitals started allowing midwives to be in their hospital, right?

IW:   Exactly. And I was one of the first.

JW:  In Philadelphia?

IW:   Yes.

JW:  Well, do you have any sort of memorable experience about a home birth besides your own that you would tell us about?

IW:   Oh, my goodness. That’s a hard question for me to pull out of my brain.

JW:  Well, how about your grandchildren? You told me about that.

IW:   Well, that was certainly a memorable birth, and that was after my time helping clients. My granddaughter was born in California, and my daughter-in-law and son asked if I would be there and catch the baby. And so, as I came into that hospital, the staff were very open and willing and accepted me, and they said, “Of course.”

There was a midwife who was taking care of her, and so she gave me the go ahead. So really, I got to deliver my little granddaughter, which for me, it felt like my entire life’s work was about that moment in time. It was amazing. My husband was present for the birth, and it was just a magical moment to have this little girl pop into my arms. I got to do a repeat performance this past December with my younger son, who lives in Philadelphia. His wife had a little boy, and I got to deliver him as well. So, it just felt like a crowning glory and blessing of my birthing days.

JW:  Now, I know you did some training throughout your career, right? Didn’t you go to Europe or somewhere overseas?

IW:   Yes, I went to Tibet. I worked in Peru first. I’ve been to Peru three different times working with a shaman, and learning about shamanic practices. And so I do some shamanic work in my gynecologic and healing arts practice.

JW: What is that? Explain.

IW:  Well, I drum. So, I drum, and the sound of the drum takes you into an expanded state of consciousness where information can come in, and is more easily accessible from other realms of consciousness in that expanded state of awareness. So, I use that a lot. I did use it a lot in my birth practice with women, and I use it now in my gynecologic practice when people are having issues or concerns, or just want some support for something that they’re going through that they don’t seem to quite understand, or they may feel that they need help or guidance from a spirit realm, or just to have some other way of looking and seeing what’s happening.

When I went to Peru for the first time, it was the beginning of letting go of my birthing practice. I went for about six or seven weeks and studied with a shaman there and I went back several times. And so that was kind of the beginning of another part of the alternative healing modalities and practices that I now have and offer.

So that was very thrilling for me. And then many years later, I was offered an opportunity to go to Tibet to teach midwives in a very rural area high, high in the Himalayans. It was pretty remarkable. I could barely breathe.

It was in a little village where there were several women who were doing births for the women in the village and in the community. I was teaching them safe home birth practices. And then I went back a second time to Tibet, where I was doing that, as well as, we traveled to a lot of different nomadic communities in the Himalayans, and I was able to offer health care services because there was no health care there at all. So, I was offering health care. I would go into a community, and there would just be long, long lines, day after day after day, of people coming for some support, or help with their problems.

I also spent time teaching in Russia and in Nepal.

JW:  You may not know this at all, but I’m curious if they had methods of contraception that you knew of.

IW:  It was limited because they were so high up in the Himalayans, and there were no clinics, there were no hospitals, there were no doctors, there were no drug stores. There was nowhere to go for help. So, it was a very limited amount of reproductive support there.

JW:  I see. So, they didn’t use, like I know indigenous people in this country used herbs. There were different groups that learned what had different properties.

IW:   Right.

JW:  But you don’t know that they did necessarily.

IW:   Mostly, they used condoms. People who would come and teach and work there would bring supplies to them. So, like, when I came, I brought a lot of condoms and other health supplies. It was a rough place. And men did not have a lot of respect, I would say, for women. So, women often became pregnant when they were not wanting to become pregnant due to the lack of support from the men.

JW:  But there was no such thing, as far as you knew, of trying to abort the pregnancy?

IW:   No, there’s not much luck with that.

JW:  Did you ever get involved with the Midwives Association, either nationally or in Pennsylvania.

IW:   A very little bit. I’ve always been averse to groups. I’ve never been good at that. I had a group that I was involved with, which was the Association for Childbirth at Home. I was very involved with that group and with teaching through the years in conferences and things like that. But I tended to stay away from the traditionally more professional groups. 

JW:  It’s interesting you say traditional, because a lot of people think midwife in and of itself is not traditional.

IW:   But it’s very traditional, in fact. Maybe the oldest profession around. So traditional midwifery is really what I practice. It was birth, and it was one on one with women who learned from other women, and taught other women. So that really was the tradition. And when the medical model came in, it became very different, so I kind of stayed away from it.

JW:  Yes. We lost midwives for a number of years there but I’m glad they’re back.

IW:   Yes, I’m glad we’re back.

JW:  So, tell us a little about your practice now.

IW:   My practice now, is I see women for gynecologic  concerns, supportive pregnancy care, and for fertility. Women who are having issues trying to conceive, and having concerns about it, or not being able to conceive. I see them for an integrative way of looking at what’s going on, both gynecologically, and with birth and conception. 

JW:  Tell me what an integrative process is.

IW:   I look at what’s going on in their life, and what their belief systems are, how they grew up, what they believe about birth and their bodies, and what’s happened in their bodies through their years. I review their gynecologic history, their history with their partners, and their histories with themselves. How do they honor themselves, and do they love and have compassion for themselves? And just where are they in all of that?

So, a lot of the work that I do is really psychological. It’s emotional work, and looking at their connection to their parents, and to their mom, and what mothering meant to them, and what their mom meant to them, and what their relationship was. We talk about what being a mother means to them, what are their fears and hopes. It’s a lot of looking at the relational work. So, it’s a different way of kind of addressing fertility. And then there’s the physical aspect of fertility, a lot of discussion around diet, exercise, nutrient and herbal supports and lifestyle changes.

JW:  So, you do use herbs?

IW:   Oh, yes, I use herbs, vitamins, homeopathy, flower essences.

JW:  Having gone through infertility myself, I wonder what were the herbs? What are some of them, I should say?

IW:   It depends on the woman themselves and what their hormonal picture is. But, for example, red clover is a really good herb for women’s health. It really depends on the particular woman, what’s going on with her, what herbs I might recommend. Different ones for different people. If someone’s very anxious, I might recommend L-theanine, for instance. Or if someone’s very depressed, I might work with Bach flower essences, which are very subtle, energetic essences of flowers that have effects on the emotional body. So, it depends on each woman’s presentation, and what she is comfortable with, what I would recommend.

JW:  And you plan to continue to do this, it sounds like. You’re not retiring.

IW:   I’m not retiring, no. I’m really happy with the practice. My practice is gynecology, as well as the alternative healing methods available (energy medicine, sound healing with Tibetan bowls, shamanic sessions)…working with women’s health and whatever is coming up for them that I can offer that can be supportive to wholeness. Often, it can be just compassionate listening.

JW:  And do you have colleagues that are doing some of the same stuff that you communicate with?

IW:   Not a lot, but I have a few, and the physician that I work with is oriented towards alternatives as well, so that really helps a lot.

JW:  I didn’t realize you worked with a physician. When needed, I guess.

IW:   Yes. I have my own practice in my own office, so I’m separate, but I can call her anytime, and she’s wonderful and very supportive.

JW:  Well, would you like to add anything at this point?

IW:   The only thing I was thinking about, was very early on in my career when I was just a brand-new nurse in Philadelphia, they had a clinic that I think was called HELP, and it was a free clinic. It was for men and for women. And I remember working in that clinic and thinking it was a real eye opener for what women needed in health care that was not being offered. It was a style of health care that was just full of humanity and compassion. I felt like it really was a wonderful way to look at healthcare, and it definitely started me off on a good track.

JW:  That was shortly after you finished nursing school?

IW:   It was. It was very soon after nursing school.

JW:  That was fabulous that you landed there.

IW:   It was. It was kismet, you know? And it really informed my understanding of what healthcare should and can be.

JW:  So, tell me what kinds of things you saw women not getting. And this we’re talking in the late 60s, right?

IW:   In the late 60s, yes. Women were not given voice much, and often felt unheard, particularly in healthcare. Physicians would examine them, and know what they believed was needed, but women weren’t included much in decision making about their own bodies. And it was a very physical orientation without much credence given to the emotional, mental (or other aspects) of what may contribute to good health

JW:  We’re still saying trust women, and we’re not quite there, but I appreciate what you’ve done to move us in that direction.

IW:   And women need to understand that they should and can trust themselves. No one knows better than us what we need, and who we are, and what comes from within. So really helping women to empower them to trust their own being and their own selves, their own thoughts and understandings that seems to be the really missing piece.