Around 500 Babies: Myrah Keating Smith

Footsteps thumped down the path, and she heard them before the child’s shout, “Miss Myrah!” By the time the sharp bang on the door rattled the shells hanging in the window, she was already up and reaching for her bag. Ignoring Andro’s sleepy complaint, “Who is it, mama?” she fumbled for clothing. “Hush, now. It’s just Elijah…it’s Purdy’s time.” Her bones ached a little, but when didn’t they, when the island breeze shifted in October? Purdy was young and strong, and the baby had been kicking for months. It would be fine. Dress pulled over her head, bag in hand, she set off after Elijah on the path. The moonlight was dim, but they’d traveled this so many times, they both knew every twist and every rock…

Ma’ho Bay on St. John’s, recent resorts wiped out by Hurricane Irma. Photo by kajmeister.

When I was in St. John’s on vacation two weeks ago, our tour bus rounded a steep corner, and the guide barked out in his island lilt, “This is our beloved MKS, the Myrah Keating Smith Hospital. Myrah was a midwife on the island who delivered over 500 babies…”

…and I thought to myself, there’s probably a lot more to that story.

It’s a week after International Women’s Day, but it’s still Women’s History month! Even if all I have is a little Wikipedia entry, I can read between the silences. What follows is mostly truth, with a little fictional speculation on my part to bring it to life. Clearly a remarkable woman!

African Names, Danish Legacy

Myrah Keating Smith was born in 1908 and raised on Lovango Cay, a small spit of land next to St. John’s island, all at the time part of the Danish West Indies. What were the Danes doing there? A little side trip is necessary as explanation. By the time the Mayflower was floundering into Boston and the Spanish were spreading over Florida, the Danes were itching to get in the action over in the New World. Everyone was grabbing up Caribbean islands — French, British, Spanish — and the Danes wanted in on the lucrative sugar crop. They knew how to sail, too, and they “discovered” that St. Thomas and St. John were “uninhabited” (other than the people who already lived there), so the Danes claimed them in 1672. Originally, the settlement they created was two Danish men yanked out of a Copenhagen prison.

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