Claire Wendland

Claire Wendland
  • University of Wisconsin Madison
  • Professor of Anthropology, Obstetrics & Gynecology
  • Residential Fellow (2019-2020)
  • “Partial Stories: Maternal Death in a Changing African World”

Claire Wendland is Professor in the Departments of Anthropology and Obstetrics & Gynecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She worked as an obstetrician-gynecologist on the Navajo reservation for years before turning to medical anthropology. Her research explores healing expertise in African settings, attending to both biomedical and vernacular ways of explaining and treating affliction. Her current book project, based on field research in Malawi, explores explanations for maternal death in a context in which mortality rates are very high while the uncertainties surrounding any given death are substantial.

Professor Wendland is the author of A Heart for the Work: Journeys through an African Medical School (Chicago 2010), the first ethnography of a medical school in the global South. She has written over twenty journal articles and book chapters on ethics, medical pluralism, and reproductive health, and has co-edited a special journal collection on “studying up” in Africa. She serves on the editorial boards for Anthropological Quarterly and Medical Anthropology Quarterly. She has chaired, and is now senior advisor for, the Council for Anthropology and Reproduction.

Wendland’s research has been supported by funding from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, a Romnes Faculty Fellowship from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Social Science Research Council, and the A.W. Mellon Foundation. Her teaching at UW-Madison has been recognized with both the Phillip R. Certain Letters & Science Distinguished Faculty Award and the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award.


  • Partial Stories: Maternal Death from Six Angles

    The University of Chicago Press, 2022

    Claire Wendland

    Wendland Partial Crop

    By the early twenty-first century, about one woman in twelve could expect to die of a pregnancy or childbirth complication in Malawi. Specific deaths became object lessons. Explanatory stories circulated through hospitals and villages, proliferating among a range of practitioners: nurse-midwives, traditional birth attendants, doctors, epidemiologists, herbalists. Was biology to blame? Economic underdevelopment? Immoral behavior? Tradition? Were the dead themselves at fault?

    In Partial Stories, Claire L. Wendland considers these explanations for maternal death, showing how they reflect competing visions of the past and shared concerns about social change. Drawing on extended fieldwork, Wendland reveals how efforts to legitimate a single story as the authoritative version can render care more dangerous than it might otherwise be. Historical, biological, technological, ethical, statistical, and political perspectives on death usually circulate in different expert communities and different bodies of literature. Here, Wendland considers them together, illuminating dilemmas of maternity care in contexts of acute change, chronic scarcity, and endemic inequity within Malawi and beyond.

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