Heritage collections relating to women's health

World Health Day, 2014

7 April is World Health Day, and the World Health Organisation this year is running a campaign to raise awareness of vector-borne diseases with the slogan ‘Small bite, big threat’. One of the diseases included in this campaign is malaria, and here at the RCOG we have been involved in highlighting the dangers of this largely preventable disease to pregnant women. The guidelines issued in 2010 as part of the highly regarded Green-top Guidelines covered the prevention, diagnosis, and management of malaria in pregnancy and these can be found on the College website or from the College Library.


Going back a bit further in time, I have found a couple of references to malaria in the College Archive. The first is in a notebook kept by the physician Robert Barnes, who practised in London during the late nineteenth century and was affiliated to the Royal Maternity Charity. His notebook kept from1889 and entitled ‘Puerperal Fever’ contains hand-written notes and news cuttings about the nature and treatment of puerperal fever, and includes a curious article from the British Medical Journal, dated January 1890 in which the writer talks of puerperal fever and:

‘…expresses the opinion that the disease is of a malarial character, and that it’s endemic prevalence is favoured or determined by meteorological conditions…the sudden variations in temperature also predispose to the absorption of the malarial poison upon which he supposes influenza to depend.’


This definition of malaria is much at odds with our perception of insect-born disease, and a more modern description of managing malaria during pregnancy can be found in case notes compiled by College Member William Rotheram. Rotheram was stationed in the Middle East during the Second World War, and while there he gathered together notes to use on his case book for the MRCOG exam. He describes the management of a 20 year old housewife who came to him half-way through her first pregnancy in March 1944, suffering from high temperature, nausea and vomiting. She had been married for a year, during which time she had spent two months in Iraq. The symptoms together with her domicile in Iraq suggested to Rotheram a diagnosis of malaria, and this was proved by a blood smear. Treatment with quinine, atebrine and plasmoquine resulted in discharge of the patient within a month and a successful pregnancy and delivery.


The risks attached to malaria during pregnancy had been documented effectively by GAW Wickramasuriya, who won the Katherine Bishop Harman prize essay in 1936 for his work on malaria and ankylostomiasis in the pregnant woman, based on his experiences in Ceylon. During this period Ceylon had a high prevalence of malaria, which contributed to the high maternal and infantile mortality rates. Malaria was also recognised as a high factor in the production of toxaemia of pregnancy such as eclampsia.

Wickramasuriya concluded that malaria causes intra-uterine death of the foetus by one or more of three ways: massive infection of the placenta with parasites, persistently high temperature, and direct invasion of the foetus by parasites. In fact, the prognosis was and still is, definitely worse for the pregnant woman than the non-pregnant woman.


For information about World Health Day and the prevention of malaria, see the WHO website at http://www.who.int/campaigns/world-health-day/2014/en/.

Fantastic Finds for Friday: Votes for Women!

Although the purpose of this blog is to bring you items which have been ‘stumbled’ upon as I work my way through my daily tasks in the College Archive, this week’s Fantastic Find really is an unexpected find!

I have been looking through some papers of the General Secretary of the Midwives’ Institute, dating from the beginning of the twentieth century, in order to gather material for the next heritage display here at the RCOG. In one of the files I found this image tucked in the back behind the papers. On the reverse is written ’6th April 1911′ and ‘The Southend and Westcliff Graphic 14th April 1911′.

Papers of the Royal College of Midwives

Suffragette rally, Southend, April 2011

I knew that the midwives had some affinity to the Suffrage movement from articles and notices posted in their journal ‘Nursing Notes’, but there was nothing to clarify why this particular photograph should have found its way into the hands of Paulina Fynes-Clinton, General Secretary of the Institute. Investigation of the 1911 volume of Nursing Notes offered no clues or sign of the image being reproduced there, and there is nothing to suggest that any of the ladies pictured were midwives or nurses.

More investigation provided some context to the photograph: rallies took place all over Europe during the spring of 1911 in support of women’s rights to work and vote, and these were so powerful that they spawned what today is celebrated as International Women’s Day on 8 March. What is more the WPSU had been active in Southend as part of their holiday campaign the previous season and this had obviously left some influence among the womenfolk of this Essex seaside town!

It is possible that some clue to the photograph will come out later, after more work has been completed on the collections – nevertheless, it is a great peek into this particular point in British history and an unexpected find in a medical college collection!

Penny Hutchins, College Archivist

Fantastic Finds for Friday: International Women’s Day

To celebrate International Women’s Day tomorrow (8 March), today’s Fantastic Find from the RCOG Archive brings you a letter from 1899 which gives a glimpse into the efforts of one woman to enter the medical profession.

The letter is a testimonial written for Harriet Bird by the Austrian gynaecologist and master of hysterectomy, Ernst Wertheim (1864-1920). Wertheim was head at the Elizabeth Hospital in Vienna in 1899 and had just performed the first full extended operation for hysterectomy the year before. Harriet Amelia Scott Bird was the youngest of six children born to the Reverend Charles Robinson Bird of Castle Eden, County Durham in September 1864: against much family opposition she became a medical student at the Medical College for Women in Edinburgh. This College had been established by Dr Elsie Inglis (a prominent campaigner for the Suffrage moment who would be deeply involved in the Scottish Women’s Hospitals during the First World War) and two other former students of the Edinburgh School of Medicine in 1889, and it successfully entered into an agreement with Edinburgh Royal Infirmary in 1892 for the clinical training of its students. Harriet studied here between 1893 and 1898, and was lucky to be in the first wave of women allowed to enter the Scottish universities, which opened up their doors to women in 1892.

Wertheim’s testimonial mentions how Harriet was conscientious in her studies in the gynaecological department at the Elizabeth Hospital, assisting in the laboratories and gaining experience in minor and major gynaecological procedures by performing on cadavers, including vaginal hysterectomy, which Victor Bonney back in London was to be a pioneer of carrying out some ten to twenty years later. She also had the opportunity of studying ophthalmology under Dr Frohlich.

Wertheim Testimonial 1899

Wertheim Testimonial p2 1899










On returning to Edinburgh with this glowing testimonial and a further period of study in Berlin under her belt, Harriet took a position as house-surgeon at Leith Hospital, but her marriage in December 1901 brought her promising career to an immediate halt. Although she busied herself as an active member of the Local Board of Guardians in Liverpool, where her husband had a GP practice, she never revisited her medical and surgical training, and died in 1934 at the age of 70.

Penny Hutchins, College Archivist

Fantastic Finds for Friday: A bit of airbrushing, 1931 style!

By Penny Hutchins, RCOG Archivist

Helping to upload to the College’s Media Library some photographs recently taken during the College’s last Annual Dinner, I was reminded of a wonderful letter which I found while cataloguing the papers of RCOG President, Sir Norman Jeffcoate. It was written by Sir Norman in 1991 and referenced the second College Annual Dinner held at Grosvenor House in 1932, when Professor William Blair-Bell was President.

Sir Norman was responding to a request from the College Archivist at the time for material relating to the British Congress of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, and while sending a photograph from the 1971 Congress he wrote in delicious detail a nice story which he felt few had heard before!

‘Before the dinner itself the guests assembled in a large room with the whole College Council arranged on a platform in front. The President, Blair Bell, was standing in the centre for a photograph to be taken. The lighting was so poor that this necessitated a long exposure. B.B, restless as ever, failed to keep still so, he alone of the Council, appeared as a blurred figure…B.B could not allow the original to go down to posterity: he had to appear at his best. So he later brought the College gown back to Liverpool and, in full regalia and in the right posture, he was photographed by his senior laboratory technician.’

He then goes on to describe how the technician, ‘a most gifted man’, stuck the new photograph of Blair Bell onto the original photograph taken at the Annual Dinner and rephotographed the whole picture – ‘So the photograph, which I presume is in the College records, is not the original one but a reproduction of a faked one. I myself saw the whole process being carried out.’

Both of the photographs are held in the College Archive, and it actually took me some time to find them, since Jeffcoate wasn’t quite correct about his facts after all. The photograph was actually taken during the Admission Ceremony for Honorary Fellows just before the First College Dinner, held also at Grosvenor House, in October 1931. The four Honorary Fellows were the newspaper proprietor Lord Riddell, the French gynaecologist Paul Bar, the Swedish Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Elis Essen-Moller, and the American John Whitridge Williams, the latter being absent from the photograph as he was taken ill and so unable to leave Baltimore. Surrounded by such eminent company there is little wonder that Blair-Bell wished to appear at his best!

There have been many times that I have seen the substituted image and thought there was something slightly odd about it. You will see what I mean when you look at the two photographs below!

Original image, Admission Ceremony 1931

‘Airbrushed’ image, Admission Ceremony 1931

Fantastic Finds for Friday: A Poignant Note for Valentine’s.

It’s that time of year again, Valentine’s Day,  when I look desperately around the RCOG Archive for a hint of sweetness and romance so that I can lighten the day for College staff and others. This Fantastic Find for Friday literally fell into my hands this week while continuing to catalogue the papers of the RCOG Presidents: a letter from College co-founder, William Fletcher Shaw to President, Sir Ewen Maclean in August 1936. Fletcher Shaw had not yet fulfilled his role as President of the College, which came later in 1938 but the tone of the letter is one of finality, of reaching the end and no thoughts of his future changing. Also, unusually for Fletcher Shaw, the letter is hand-written, full of mistakes, so different from his usual measured and free-flowing typed letters.

The catalyst for this? The death of his wife, Nora Fletcher Shaw, the year before in 1935. Fletcher Shaw’s letter starts out with thoughts of his own mortality – ‘I have left in my will a thousand pounds to the College’ – and apologises that he cannot leave more but ‘I have given so much time to the College that my practice has necessarily suffered and it would be unfair to my family to leave a larger sum’. And anyone who has seen the volume of correspondence created by Fletcher Shaw between 1924 and 1929 during the foundation of the British College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (held here at the College and undergoing cataloguing) will have no doubt that his words ring true and his energies during these years were devoted to the cause of the College.

It is the second part of the letter, relating to Nora, that is poignant, concerned with Fletcher Shaw’s request that if possible, the Council ‘could find something permanent’ to which Nora’s name could be attached, going on to explain:

‘The College owes more to her than anyone but I, and perhaps Blair Bell, realised. On many occasions in the early days our best laid plans fell asunder as we encountered unexpected difficulties…On these occasions, but for the encouragement of my wife, whose heart and soul was in the College and who fully realised that my occupation in the College must damage my practice and therefore lower her income, I should have let the pieces lie…each time her encouragement and enthusiasm and especially her ability to see the best in everyone stimulated one more effort.’

Nora is said to have touched the heart of that grand and difficult College co-founder,  Professor William Blair-Bell, to the extent that Blair-Bell kept on his desk a horseshoe given to him by Nora before the opening of the College House in Queen Anne Street by the Duke and Duchess of York in 1932.

Although Fletcher Shaw went on to perform greater things for the College, his life was still tinged with sadness, in particular with the death of one of his son’s, William Meredith Shaw, in action during the Second World War. He did marry again though, and his wife, Mabie Mary, widow of Dr Archibald Stevenson saw him through his Presidency and the difficult war years ahead. He died in 1961, having been knighted for his services to the specialty in 1943.

(c) The Family of Will C. Penn; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

And although there are no lectureships or memorial prize funds in her name, Nora Fletcher Shaw’s portrait, painted in 1922 by the celebrated artist, William Charles Penn, hangs in the Fellows and Members dining room, and her name lives on in the College Archive with words such as these:

‘Few men are blessed with such a partner and a newly born enterprise with such a friend.’

Penny Hutchins, Archivist


Fantastic Finds for Friday: Foundation of the RCOG and Equality of the Sexes!

As an Archivist, I just love those moments when I come across something in the collection which makes me think ‘YES!!’ It could be a quote which totally sums up the period of that particular collection, or a series of letters between two Fellows of the College which suddenly give a clue about some rumoured or hazy subject. And since the purpose of this blog was always to share anything exciting which I come across, I thought I would start off 2014 with a little nugget I came across in the past week.

My new project for this year is to catalogue the papers of Sir William Fletcher Shaw, co-founder of the College, first Honorary Secretary, and President between 1938 and 1942. So far, the papers have all been correspondence between Fletcher Shaw and eminent obstetricians and gynaecologists of the early 1920s concerning the establishment of the college. Sir Comyns Berkeley, John Shields Fairbairn, Victor Bonney, Sir Eardley Holland – within the correspondence is documented all their opinions about the necessity of a new College for the specialty of obstetrics and gynaecology (positive and negative!).

There have been so many letters which have caught my attention so far – details of the dispute between Comyns Berkeley and co-founder, Professor William Blair-Bell which threatened to scupper the whole project at the last minute in 1929; suspected underhand moves from the President of the Royal College of Physicians; and the sheer exasperation of the lawyer appointed to oversee the process, Oswald Hempson. The correspondence which I’m bringing you today occurred at a time when the process of developing the College looked fairly straight forward, before obstacles were planted in the way, and thoughts were turning towards drawing up lists of obstetricians and gynaecologists to be invited to become Members and Fellows, and also contenders for roles on the new Council and as President.

Dame Josephine Barnes

Dame Josephine Barnes

In a letter to Comyns Berkeley of 29 June 1927, Fletcher Shaw, while commenting on his disinclination to receive too much in the way of financial support from the newspaper proprietor, Lord Riddell, also touched on the subject of his female medical peers, saying ‘… nor do we want a lot of useless women foisted on to the Council merely because they are women. My own attitude towards women is that they should compete for professional posts on an equality with men and I am always strongly opposed to giving them posts merely because of their sex.’

It is possible to take this comment as negative, but I rather choose to see it as a cry for equality – something women in the medical profession have been calling for since before they were allowed admittance to the medical schools in the late nineteenth century. In a letter a couple of months later, Fletcher Shaw rather substantiated this by calling for the respected Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Louise McIlroy to join the new College’s Council ‘to represent the women, as I feel we must show from the commencement that they are included in the scheme and I think she would make a useful member.’

This piece has been made even more significant for me by the recent reshuffling of officer roles and governance at the College. The RCOG currently has two women serving as Honorary Officers, the latest to be appointed being Professor Lesley Regan, Vice President Strategic Development. This role replaces the more traditional Honorary Treasurer, a post which was filled by none other than above-said Comyns Berkeley when the College began in 1929. These female Officers join the small group of ladies who have served the College as Officers since the first female President, Dame Hilda Lloyd in 1949: Dame Josephine Barnes, Aileen Dickins, Mary Anderson, Heather Mellows and Maggie Blott. With just under half of the current membership being female, we look forward to seeing more women at the top of the profession!

Penny Hutchins, RCOG Archivist

Fantastic Finds for Friday: ‘May we ask for your advice on the subject of hormones and expensive gynaecological drugs?’

Picture the scene: the War Office, April 1943, in the depths of war planning, blitzed, with rationing looming on the horizon, giving their thoughts to dwindling national supplies as well as theatres of war. Lieutenant Colonel Albertine Winner received a call from the Supplies Department – medical professionals are making demands for all kinds of drugs and supplies cannot cope or source them. What should she do? Ah, contact the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of course!

Albertine Louise Winner was a physician in civilian life, and joined the RAMC in 1940, rising to the ranks of Lieutenant Colonel and becoming consultant for women’s services. As such she was more than qualified to deal with such a request. In a letter to RCOG President at the time, Sir William Fletcher Shaw, she outlined the problem:

‘May we ask for your advice on the subject of hormones and expensive gynaecological drugs? You are doubtless aware that we issue these drugs from the War Office only on the recommendation of a gynaecological specialist. We are having considerable difficulty however in holding any stocks or decentralising as every specialist seems to have his own pet proprietary preparation on which he insists.

‘Our supplies branch would have their task enormously lightened if we could have a list of authorised hormone preparations including one of each substance in common use, so that they could issue the corresponding one whenever a proprietary article is ordered by name.

‘Could you advise us and tell us one reputable (if possible B.P.) preparation for each substance you consider ought to be obtainable? We could then ask to have all military and E.M.S. specialists circulated with this list and also decentralise our issues somewhat.’

The matter was passed to the College’s Finance and Executive Committee, who came up with a list of ten hormone and drug preparations, covering oestrin (possibly oestrogen?), progesterone, anterior pituitary hormone, male hormone, ergot, stovarsol and picragol, which Albertine Winner received by the end of May.

This correspondence was found within the papers of the External Affairs Committee [reference RCOG/B2/3] which are undergoing recataloguing at the moment. This is a fascinating series of papers covering the College’s external activities during the first couple of decades of its existence, and there is a fair bit of wartime correspondence there which demonstrates the extent of the RCOG’s contribution to the war effort as well as its frustrated attempts to change government policy relating to maternity services.

Penny Hutchins, College Archivist

ARCHI’VE EXPLORED: Explore Your Archive, 2013

Explore the collections of the Royal College of Midwives and find out what life as a midwife has been like over the last 150 years. That is the message we are sending out for the Explore Your Archive week, where archives are inviting archive users and non-users to find out some of the treasures held in archives throughout the country. Here at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, where we also hold the collections of the Royal College of Midwives, we can draw on all our holdings to tell the fascinating tale of campaign, delivering and finding the midwives’ stories!


The Training of Midwives

Women who had the means to undertake formal medical training were able to take the examination of the London Obstetrical Society which guaranteed their competence to attend natural births. The medical schools were at this time barred to women.

Lord Balfour of Burleigh responded to the call for trained midwives by introducing the Registration of Midwives Bill in to Parliament in April 1896. The Midwives’ Institute, which had been vocal in its campaign for registration and training, responded by issuing a statement supporting the bill which would give a professional standing to the title ‘midwife’.

Registration was introduced under the 1902 Midwives Act, and midwives were required to either pass the examination set by the Central Midwives Board or to show that their professional skills were of long and good standing. These requirements were refined and extended throughout the years, with the 1936 Act providing roles within local health authorities for midwives, and the Royal College of Midwives tirelessly campaigning for better professional standards and working conditions.


Copyright of the RCM


Copyright of the RCM


Copyright of the RCM


Copyright of the RCM

These records from the papers of Rosalind Paget as Honorary Treasurer of the Midwives Institute between 1899 and 1931 show the extent of the campaign among the organised midwives to consolidate the position of the midwifery profession, with notes petitioning support for compulsory registration of midwives, and reasons why the Midwives Institute (later the Royal College of Midwives) should be represented on the newly formed Central Midwives Board. [RCM Archive, reference RCM/E3/3/1/2]

Minnie King Notebook p1

Copyright of the RCM

Minnie King Notebook p2

Copyright of the RCM

Minnie King was among the first group to graduate as fully qualified midwives from Queen Charlotte’s Hospital in London in the early 1900s. Her training notes are shown above, and below is a photograph of midwifes in anatomy class in Great Portland Street.

Minnie King photo

Copyright of the RCM

[RCM Archive, reference RCMS/144]

Edith Pye, President of the RCM 1929 – 1948, became a registered midwife in 1906.

Pye certificate

Copyright of the RCM

Pye photograph

Copyright of the RCM

Pye CMB certificate

Copyright of the RCM

[RCM Archive, reference RCMS/2]


Midwives and the Charitable Institutions

Childbirth was very different before the 1900s to the present day. Women delivered mostly at home, attended by local midwives who had received no formal training and who often were illiterate and ignorant of medical knowledge. Physicians had medical knowledge but very few had practical experience of childbirth – those who did were a specialist breed, spearheaded by the father of man-midwifery, William Smellie. Upper class women could afford the services of medical specialists; lower classes were reliant on charity and the untrained midwives, to whom they would pay a small fee.

Copyright of the RCOG

Copyright of the RCOG

The Lying-in Hospitals in London and Dublin (pictured) are good examples of charitable institutions established to provide maternity services for the poorer classes. These institutions provided roles for the midwives, although still untrained, and importantly provided cases for physicians to eager to gain practical experience of childbirth. Midwives who were not lucky enough to get roles in such institutions were reliant on their reputations for getting cases, and would often fall on hard times through one reason or another.

[Photographs from the RCOG Archive, reference RCOG/PH24/1-2]

This letter from Sarah Roddrey shows how the services of the Lying-in Hospital in Manchester helped her to keep practicing as a midwife of good reputation for 20 years.

Roddrey letter p1

Copyright of the RCM

Roddrey letter p2

Copyright of the RCM

Roddrey letter p3

Copyright of the RCM

[RCM Archive, reference RCM/2013/10]

The minute books of the Lying-in Hospital at Endell Street, London gives statistics of deliveries and maternal deaths, and examines the impact of home attendances by the hospital’s midwives. The British Lying-in Hospital was established in 1749 for married women only, it was situated in Brownlow Street, Long Acre, Holborn until 1849 when it moved to Endell Street. It catered for the ‘distressed poor with special attention to the wives of soldiers and sailors’. The sort of women admitted were the wives of poor men who, in the earlier years particularly, had come to London from all over the country, many of them the wives of Irish servicemen. There was provision both for in and out care: assistance was given with home deliveries, though most of the patients were provided with a bed in the hospital. It was supported by private subscription. The hospital was regulated by 13 George III c.82 and closed in 1913.

[RCOG Archive, reference S66/1/1]


Copyright of the RCOG


Copyright of the RCOG


Copyright of the RCOG


Copyright of the RCOG

The records of the Royal Maternity Charity which provided services to the women of East London, give details of how the Charity interceded in disputes between midwives and mothers, the level of employment which the charity gave and the support to midwives during time of distress, as well as the usual financial accounts and reports.

Copyright of the RCOG

S60_A_16 p2

Copyright of the RCOG

S60_A_16 p3

Copyright of the RCOG

S60_A_16 p4

Copyright of the RCOG

[RCOG Archive, reference S60/A/1]


Midwifery and the family historian

Case registers have been kept by midwives since the 1902 Midwives Act, mostly as evidence of the deliveries and actions in the case of litigation against them. Some midwives, such as Mrs Fagon, working in East London between 1875 and 1895, kept a record of their deliveries long before 1902, possibly as evidence of their successful record in delivering babies and in order to attract more cases.

Fagon p1

Copyright of the RCM

Fagon p2

Copyright of the RCM

Fagon p3

Copyright of the RCM

Fagon p4

Copyright of the RCM

Mrs Fagon’s accouchement book, 1875.

[RCM Archive, reference RCMS/42]

These case registers or books contain such details as mother’s name and address, delivery of the baby, the name of the doctor if called, and any drug administered; the case record training books required to be kept by pupil midwives for the CMB examination contain much more information, such as antenatal records, temperature charts, and postnatal observations. The genealogical value of these registers is yet to be discovered, as most registers are closed due to the personal details they contain with 100 years being the normal time of closure, but the RCM Archive is actively preserving the registers for the time when they can be made available to both genealogists and social historians.

Sadly there are no records at the RCM to help family historians to trace midwifery ancestors, but there is plenty to be discovered about life as a midwife between the 1880s and 2000s.

Atkins Register cover

Copyright of the RCM

Atkins Register p1

Copyright of the RCM

Atkins Register p2

Copyright of the RCM

Ms register of cases, completed by K. B. Atkins (2 May 1907-3 October 1910), recording the births that she attended whilst working at the Military Family Hospital in Woolwich , including details of the name and pregnancy history of the patient, the date and hour of the birth, the presentation of the child at birth, the duration of labour, if there were any complications during and after labour, the sex of the infant, whether the child was premature or full term, whether the doctor was called, the date of her last visit, the condition of the mother and child on her last visit, as well as further remarks, such as whether forceps were used during the delivery.

[RCM Archive, reference RCMS/39]

Penny Hutchins, Archivist to RCOG and RCM

Fantastic Finds for Friday: Some ‘TLC’ for Medical Letters

Our Fantastic Find this week is more of a rediscovery and
rejuvenation! During one of my little cataloguing sprees a month or
so ago, I found the papers of Robert Sydenham Fancourt Barnes in
the Archive, feeling more than a little bit sorry for themselves!
They consist of letters sent to Fancourt Barnes by medical
contemporaries between 1858 and 1892, discussing all sorts of
professional and personal matters, and including such prestigious
names as Sir Thomas Spencer Wells, Sir Alexander Simpson and Sir
William McCormac. Although there was no background information as
to how the College came by these letters, they were obviously
bought from a bookseller or at auction, and had at some point been
pasted onto card and displayed for the autographs, rather than the
content. A letter from Joseph Lister had clearly been sold off
separately – it’s empty board showing signs of the letter being
roughly torn away, and a pencil note of ‘£12, Sir Joseph Lister’
the only testament to a collection broken up and dispersed.

Letters of Fancourt Barnes, pre-conservation

Letters of Fancourt Barnes, pre-conservation

Robert Fancourt Barnes (1849-1908) was an English physician (the son of
the celebrated obstetrician Robert Barnes) who studied obstetrics
and was physician to the Royal Maternity Charity and Chelsea
Hospital for Women, as well as being a respected gynaecologist. The
matters under discussion in these letters range from methods of
warding off puerperal fever, operations for ruptured perineum and
hysterectomy, and published guidance for midwives, as well as
advice about his role with the Royal Maternity Charity. The most
interesting letter for me was one from the French scientist,
Etienne-Jules Marey discussing the recent successful crossing of
the Channel by the swimmer Captain Matthew Webb. Professor Marey
was a doctor and physiologist, and invented in 1888, a method of
producing a series of successive images of a moving body on the
same negative in order to be able to study its exact position in
space at determined moments, which he called ‘chronophotographie’,
and which was one of the earliest forms of moving film. Marey’s
letter (written in French) marvels at the feat of the English
maritime office, Matthew Webb (1848-1883), who in August 1875
became the first successful swimmer across the English Channel, in
a crossing which took him 21 hours and 45 minutes. Professor Marey,
writing in November 1875, was obviously taken with the physical
endurance required for this achievement. Captain Webb tragically
died in July 1883 in a whirlpool at the foot of Niagara Falls.

Captain Matthew Webb, photographed by Elliot & Fry, taken from Dictionary of National Biography

Captain Matthew Webb, photographed by Elliot & Fry, taken from Dictionary of National Biography

As mentioned, the letters were all pasted onto card, which has been
disintegrating rapidly and threatening the preservation of the
letters – some of which could not be read completely due to being
stuck down. A wonderful conservator was found to give the letters
some TLC, and the results were returned to the Archive this week.
The letters will now be fit for display and research for another
hundred years of more!

Penny Hutchins, College Archivist

Fantastic Finds for Friday: Bethel Solomons’ Hat!

Bethel Solomons (1885-1965) was born in Dublin and spent most of his professional life there. As Master of the Rotunda Hospital, he organised the first sterility clinic in Dublin, and was a founder fellow of this College and an honorary fellow of the American Association of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. He was elected President of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland in 1946. He was also an international rugby player, playing for Ireland, and a supporter of the 1916 Rising.

A small collection of papers held in the College Archive was donated to the RCOG by Michael Solomons in 1990, the son of Bethel and a renowned gynaecologist himself. These papers consist of correspondence with many of the great medics of the earlier 20th century, including Comyns Berkeley, Victor Bonney and William Blair-Bell discussing gynaecological issues and are a fascinating insight into the developments which were in progress during that time. It isn’t all serious talk though, as the reproductions below will show!

In September 1931, Solomons sent the letter below to the British Medical Journal, entering the debate about the delivery and management of breech presentations.

S5/3 Solomons' letter

Copyright of the estate of Bethel Solomons

S5/3 Spencers' letter

Copyright of the estate of Herbert Spencer

Solomons’ point about finding out the ‘size of the husband’s hat’ to assess management of a breach delivery was instantly taken up by Herbert Spencer (1860-1941), a fellow obstetrician and gynaecologist in London, who sent the amusing letter right. Spencer writes ‘…are you talking through your hat? At least, I think you should point out that it is the brim of the pelvis, not of the hat, which is important. For supposing the father wore such as I once saw you wearing, I fear that the student, when he came to practice, would resort to unnecessary operations…’

We have no record of Solomons’ reply!

Penny Hutchins, Archivist

Post Navigation


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.