Ten years of Safe Motherhood Initiative notwithstanding, many developing countries still experience maternal mortality levels similar to those of industrialized countries in the early 20th century. This paper analyses the conditions under which the industrialized world has reduced maternal mortality over the last 100 years. Preconditions appear to have been early awareness of the magnitude of the problem, recognition that most maternal deaths are avoidable, and mobilization of professionals and the community. Still, there were considerable differences in the timing and speed of reduction of maternal mortality between countries, related to the way professionalization of delivery care was determined: firstly, by the willingness of the decision-makers to take up their responsibility; secondly, by making modern obstetrical care available to the population (particularly by encouragement or dissuasion of midwifery care); and thirdly, by the extent to which professionals were held accountable for addressing maternal health in an effective way. Reduction of maternal mortality in developing countries today is hindered by limited awareness of the magnitude and manageability of the problem, and ill-informed professionalization strategies focusing on antenatal care and training of traditional birth attendants. These strategies have by and large been ineffective and diverted attention from development of professional first-line midwifery and second-line hospital delivery care.