Hortence Robinson 1923–2010
Esteemed midwife and natural healer Hortence* Robinson passed away at her daughter’s home in Ladyville, Belize, on November 7, 2010. She suffered from strokes for 7 years before ceding her life—with a smile on her face—at age 87.
Miss Hortence, as she was respectfully and affectionately called, was descended from midwives on both maternal and paternal sides. While her father worked in the chicle camps of Cozumel, Mexico, she forwent school to assist her family with household chores, and to spend time gathering healing plants. Hortence noted that she was interested in herbs from her earliest days—treating her mother for a headache at age 3.
She told Channel 5 Belize that the Q’eqchi’ Indians were some of her first traditional medicine teachers: “I was a child that if you said, ‘Let’s go collect herbs,’ we go with the people collecting herbs and to each herb they collected I was ‘What you want it for? What will you do with it? What you use it for?’ And they keep telling me; they weren’t selfish.”1
At just 9 years of age, Robinson was aiding her mother and grandmother in midwifery. She independently delivered her first infant at 13, while she was in the hospital recovering from a near-lethal asthma attack. According to her friend and colleague, Rosita Arvigo, DN, Robinson was walking down a hospital corridor when 2 men brought in a stretcher. “On the stretcher was a woman in final stages of labor,” Dr. Arvigo recounted in her eulogy for Robinson, “[The woman] looked over at Hortence and pleaded, ‘Come here child and catch this baby.’ Hortence knew just what to do. She delivered the infant on her own, waited for the placenta to pass, then wrapped the baby and placenta in her own hospital nightgown and went to find the nurse.”
Such behavior was typical of Miss Hortence, who always put the wellbeing of others before her own comfort. Robinson moved to Belize as a teenager, and in time she had a tiny blue house perpetually teeming with people, both family and not. “Some sat under the shade of her great mango tree waiting to be healed; others came just to bask in her warmth and hospitality,” said Dr. Arvigo in her eulogy. “Children passed right though her living room and kitchen taking a shortcut on their way to and from school twice daily. She knew them all by name and had delivered most of them.”
Robinson was a proud mother as well as a midwife. Altogether she had 23 children—9 biological and 14 adopted sons and daughters—whom she singly raised.
Though she did not learn to read or write as a child, Robinson became a compelling public speaker. She was invited to lecture at a number of institutions and conferences, including Carnegie-Mellon University, the Women’s Herbal Conference, the International Herbal Conference, the National Cancer Institute, the New York Botanical Garden, and 5 Traditional Healers Conferences in Belize.
Miss Hortence also played a key role in a project to inventory the plant diversity of Belize and gathered information about the uses—medicinal and otherwise—for these species. “She made an extraordinary contribution to the Belize Ethnobotany Project,” said Michael Balick, PhD, “and her contributions to recording the traditional knowledge of the plants of her country are to be found in the many hundreds of plant specimens she helped gather during dozens of scientific expeditions, as well as in a forthcoming guide to the useful plants of Belize. Her work also supported the effort by the National Cancer Institute of the US National Institutes of Health to evaluate the medicinal potential of local plants. It was her desire that the Belizean tradition of using plants for healing not be lost, but continue to serve future generations. She felt strongly that such new discoveries could help the people of the world” (e-mail, January 19, 2011).
Because of the breadth of her knowledge and experience with medicinal plants—particularly their active ingredients—Robinson came to be known as Mil Secretos (a thousand secrets). She is said to have had a spiritual relationship with plants, and her healing preparations included idiosyncratic steps such as cutting bark only from the south side of a tree for use in a diabetes treatment, and utilizing only the ants that were crawling upward on cockspur trees (Acacia cornigera, Fabaceae) in her catarrh remedy.
When asked at an Art of Birthing conference if she performed episiotomies, Robinson puffed up her chest, looked right out into the waiting audience and declared, “Well, I never did have a lady who tore!” The crowd of medical professionals went wild, offering her a standing ovation, after which Robinson explained her secrets to preventing tearing during childbirth.
Robinson’s greatest contribution to women’s health may be her uterine massage techniques. Abdominal massage is a traditional component of Maya female reproductive-system treatment, and according to Dr. Arvigo, Robinson originated “a very useful formula for smaller uterine fibroids known as Hortence’s Formula.” Arvigo added that one must be able to locate Hortence’s Point—“a miniscule area on the ischial ramus…that brings great relief to many female complaints when palpated according to her instructions”—in order to be certified by the Maya Abdominal Therapy Association.
“May her beloved memory be a blessing to all who knew her,” said Mark Blumenthal, ABC Founder and Executive Director, “and to those who continue to receive her invaluable teachings.”
—Ashley Lindstrom and Rosita Arvigo, DN
1. Castillo R. A traditional healer’s story. Channel 5 Belize. Available at: http://edition.channel5belize.com/archives/18412. AccessedJanuary 6, 2011.
*Alternately spelled “Hortense”