I was puzzled when I came across the following passage in Wikipedia, free encyclopedia dealing with W. Somerset Maugham’s biography:

“Maugham’s mother, Edith Mary had tuberculosis, a condition for which her physician prescribed childbirth. She had Maugham several years after the last of his three older brothers.”

Can we take it literally? In today’s common sense, any childbirth should tremendously consume physical strength of the mother to be. Provided it was a superstition that childbirth is a good remedy for treating tuberculosis in Maugham’s mother’s time, is the phrase, “Her physician prescribed childbirth” current, and easily understood by native English speakers without explanation? .

  • 1
    Tuberculosis (or "consumption") was a fairly common disorder prior to the availability of effective antibiotics, in large part because it was so poorly understood. For instance, one major route of infection was milk from infected cows, but this wasn't recognized until about 1930, and pasteurization of milk was not required in all of the US until the early 1970s. So many bogus treatments for TB were proposed and used prior to the introduction of streptomycin in 1946.
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 18, 2016 at 1:07
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    Grammatically, it’s current and idiomatic and easily understood by native English speakers with no further explanation, yes. From a medical point of view, however, it is utterly insane and leaves at least this English speaker completely nonplussed and scratching his (that is, my) head in bewilderment. When I read the title, my immediate thought was, “Well, no, I suppose it isn’t, because in current English, ‘prescribe childbirth’ would mean that a doctor recommended childbirth as a cure, and that’s nonsense, so that can’t be it”. But it turned out it was, so I did easily understand it. Dec 18, 2016 at 1:55
  • @JanusBahsJacquet - I believe there are still a few disorders (I'm thinking they're of the immune system variety) which are known to sometimes be cured by pregnancy. But TB would not be one of them -- if anything, pregnancy would make the condition worse.
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 18, 2016 at 2:00
  • It is a concept based on folk medicine : babycenter.com/… - vaginismus.com/faq/pregnancy-questions/…
    – user66974
    Dec 18, 2016 at 8:03
  • @HotLicks Pregnancy in itself I could sort of understand, since that does have quite an effect on the immune system and hormones and various other things. But the actual act of giving birth? Dec 18, 2016 at 9:49

2 Answers 2


It's a "quack" [fallacious] remedy. The doctor prescribed [recommended] childbirth as a cure for tuberculosis. He might as well have recommended learning to play the cello. These days, a doctor would prescribe antibiotics.

prescribe [verb]

(of a doctor) to say what medical treatment someone should have:

  • The drug is often prescribed for ulcers.
  • I've been prescribed painkillers.

Cambridge Dictionary

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    I would have recommended a good bloodletting with leeches ;-) (Note to Yoichi: That's a somewhat famous humorous cultural reference in the U.S.)
    – J.R.
    Dec 18, 2016 at 1:46

I am not a native English speaker and I think there are two possible interpretations judging from the quote. One is what @Mick explained and the other is as follows.

  1. It is a well-known fact that tuberculosis is still a life-threatening disease and "in 2014, there were 9.6 million cases of active TB which resulted in 1.5 million deaths. More than 95% of deaths occurred in developing countries." according to the Wikipedia article on tuberculosis.

  2. The preposition for could imply both "The doctor prescribed childbirth for the purpose of curing the disease" and "The doctor prescribed childbirth for the fear (possibility, reason) of her inevitable death sooner than later". Considering the fact that the disease was considered incurable at the time, it's not too big a stretch.

I know it's a a bit of stretch, but I don't think the second interpretation is impossible to make from the quote. Without knowing what doctors at the time knew about the disease and how they tried to cure it, it is not easy to tell. Prescribing childbirth for any disease sounds very surprising and I think what @Mick explained is closer to the answer.

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