rcogheritage

Heritage collections relating to women's health

The Most Beautiful President’s Badge in London

The RCOG Library and Heritage Service extends a big thank you to everyone who visited our blog and reading room during Explore Your Archive 2016! As we reach the end of this year’s campaign, our blog is taking an artistic turn. Today we look at Blair-Bell’s designs for the College’s presidential badge.

In 1932, William Blair-Bell commissioned a ceremonial badge, to be worn by the College’s president on special occasions. He designed it alongside Omar Ramsden (1873–1939), one of the country’s leading designers and makers of silverware.  Blair-Bell presented the badge to the College at the end of his presidency in memory of his late wife Florence.

The badge was much more stylised and intricate than many of the presidential badges made by societies and colleges at the time. The original badge was based on the College’s coat of arms and consisted of the Natal Star of Bethlehem on which rested the College’s signature black and blue crest. Part of the College’s moto ‘super ardua’, meaning ‘let us overcome our difficulties’ and adapted from Blair-Bell’s own family coat of arms. The badge was worn by RCOG presidents Blair-Bell, John Fairbairn, Ewen Maclean and William Fletcher Shaw.

This wasn’t the only design considered, however. Below is a selection of some of our favourite presidential badge designs, which are stored in the RCOG Archive. Notice how they include the College’s shield, the natal star and images of doctors and of mothers, highlighting the College’s mission to improve maternal health care:

William Fletcher Shaw wrote, in his history of the RCOG, that the final presidential badge was ‘generally recognised as the most beautiful President’s badge in London.’

But this most beautiful badge met a tragic end. Soon after the end of Fletcher Shaw’s term as president, the badge was stolen from the College’s safe. Luckily the badge was insured and a new one was commissioned to be as close as possible to the original design.

This badge is on display now at the RCOG Library along with a selection of other mementos and letters from the archives of our College founders.


Free Exhibit at the RCOG Library

Many Charming Letters

A selection of charming, amusing and illuminating letters exchanged between RCOG co-founders William Blair-Bell and William Fletcher Shaw during the early years of the College will be on display in the RCOG Library Reading Room from Monday 21st November.

The "Many Charming Letters" exhibit at the RCOG Library.

The “Many Charming Letters” exhibit at the RCOG Library.

Joining these letters will be artefacts from the College’s heritage collections including William Fletcher Shaw’s obstetric instruments, William Blair-Bell’s original designs for the College’s official seal, and the badge worn by the College’s Presidents at official ceremonies.

Entry is free and commemorative postcards will be on sale in the Library and at the College reception desk.

Visit us:
Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologist
27 Sussex Place
Regent’s Park
London NW1 4RG
https://www.rcog.org.uk/en/contact-us/directions/

Explore Your Archive
Explore Your Archive is a campaign designed for archives of all kinds throughout the UK and Ireland. It is run by The National Archives and the Archives and Records Association. This year the main launch week will run from 19 to 27 November 2016. 

Find out more at http://exploreyourarchive.org/

A Very Lucky Gift

It has been a hectic week for the RCOG Heritage Service. We’ve hosted celebrity guests, showcased some of the best our historic midwifery collections have to offer, and we’ve paid tribute to one of the most complicated figures in our College’s history.

To round off Explore Your Archive Week 2016 this weekend, we are highlighting two previously hidden treasures which are now part of our “Many Charming Letters” exhibit in the RCOG Library. Today’s post focuses on a very ‘lucky gift’: Blair-Bell’s lucky horseshoe.

On 5th December 1932 the Duke and Duchess of York, later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, opened the College’s first headquarters in Queen Anne Street, London. Since 1929 the College had operated out of William Fletcher Shaw’s own office in Manchester. But from the outset, the College had had its heart set on a London residence so it could join the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) and the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) in having a presence in the capital, close to the beating heart of British politics.

But royal recognition came at a cost. While the Duke and Duchess did agree to attend the ceremony, political tensions between the College and the already established RCP and RCS led to them refusing an Honorary Fellowship to the College. The Duchess would later accept an Honorary Fellowship in 1949.

With so many eyes on the ceremony, College President William Blair-Bell could not afford to fall short of expectations.

‘On the occasion of the opening of the College House by the Duke and Duchess of York,’ wrote Fletcher Shaw in the unpublished version of his history of the RCOG, ‘a difficult ceremony, and made more so for [Blair-Bell] by knowledge that many present were critics of his and would rejoice in any mistake, we stayed at the same hotel for a few days and shared a private sitting room.’

It was then that Nora Shaw, wife of Fletcher Shaw, gave Blair-Bell the gift of a lucky decorative horseshoe covered in white heather.

Nora was a huge supporter of the College and an important source of advice for her husband and Blair-Bell during its foundation. She and Blair-Bell were introduced by Fletcher Shaw in 1924 when Fletcher Shaw invited Blair-Bell to stay at their country cottage.

‘I was then under the impression that [Blair-Bell] disliked women and had so warned my wife,’ Fletcher Shaw remembers, ‘Quite contrary to this she found him delightful as he did her and they struck up a great friendship which ended only with her death in 1934.’

Blair-Bell insisted on having the horseshoe on the table in front of him during the opening ceremony and kept it on display in his home until his death. Shortly after the ceremony, Blair-Bell wrote to Nora to thank her for her gift. He wrote:

‘Your beautiful “lucky gift” is now in my “silver cupboard”. It was a charming thought, and I am sure it was responsible for any success there may have been in my terrible ordeal, or shall I say “orgy” at the opening ceremony.

I wonder if you know how much you contributed to the success of the functions. Always charming, ever cheerful and inspiring, and you made, at any rate your husband and me, go out to win.’

After Blair-Bell’s death in 1936, his will allowed his friends to choose and keep one item from his home in remembrance of him. Unfortunately, his and Fletcher Shaw’s friendship had suffered during the years before Blair-Bell’s death. Of this, Fletcher Shaw wrote:

‘… as I then felt that he had treated me badly and our friendship had lost something of its old sweetness, I preferred not to accept a valuable object, and chose again this old horseshoe, a gift from one he admired in the days of our old close friendship.’

The horseshoe was later donated to the College by Fletcher Shaw’s children. It and Blair-Bell’s letters to William and Nora are on display in the RCOG Library now.


Free Exhibit at the RCOG Library

Many Charming Letters

A selection of charming, amusing and illuminating letters exchanged between RCOG co-founders William Blair-Bell and William Fletcher Shaw during the early years of the College will be on display in the RCOG Library Reading Room from Monday 21st November.

Joining these letters will be artefacts from the College’s heritage collections including William Fletcher Shaw’s obstetric instruments, William Blair-Bell’s original designs for the College’s official seal, and the badge worn by the College’s Presidents at official ceremonies.

The "Many Charming Letters" exhibit at the RCOG Library.

The “Many Charming Letters” exhibit at the RCOG Library.

Entry is free and commemorative postcards will be on sale in the Library and at the College reception desk.

Visit us:
Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologist
27 Sussex Place
Regent’s Park
London NW1 4RG
https://www.rcog.org.uk/en/contact-us/directions/

Explore Your Archive
Explore Your Archive is a campaign designed for archives of all kinds throughout the UK and Ireland. It is run by The National Archives and the Archives and Records Association. This year the main launch week will run from 19 to 27 November 2016. 

Find out more at http://exploreyourarchive.org/

A Surgeon and his Dog

Few things are more iconic than the image of a man and his dog. Today’s Explore Your Archive blog post looks at RCOG co-founder William Blair-Bell and his relationship with animals and with country life.

While he had no children, Blair-Bell did keep dogs at his country house, Eardiston Estate. The most personal and humanising images of Blair-Bell feature him in the gardens of his home with his family and pets, including his dog Rogue (pictured here):

Blair-Bell and his dog Rogue, circa 1930

Blair-Bell and his dog Rogue, circa 1930

Professor William Blair-Bell relaxing in his garden with his dog. Copyright of the Datnow Trust.

Professor William Blair-Bell relaxing in his garden with his dog. Copyright of the Datnow Trust.

Blair-Bell loved dogs and kept several hounds, treating them great affection. In Blair-Bell’s obituary, published in the British Medical Journal, Eardley Holland wrote:

‘Even with his best friends [Blair-Bell] could be stern, at times almost ruthless; and yet there was another side, an almost boyish charm and love of mischief, and a disarming tenderness to children and animals, who instinctively loved him.’

Read more…

Blair-Bell’s Cancer Curiosities

Today’s Explore Your Archive post follows the theme of scientific innovation and advancement. Not surprisingly, the heritage collections of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists are full of treasures, curiosities and mysteries concerning the history of medicine. Our collections cover a wide range of specialties in addition to our extensive papers and publications on obstetrics and gynaecology. One of the medical fields represented in our archive is the study of cancer and the pursuit of a cure.

A card sent to Blair-Bell during his cancer research, circa 1928-1929

A card sent to Blair-Bell during his cancer research, circa 1928-1929

RCOG co-founder William Blair-Bell conducted several lead-based experiments in the 1920s during the race to find a treatment or cure for cancer. Carrying on from his 1905 work, “The Determination of the Cause and Nature of Cancer”, Blair-Bell spent a decade studying the effect of lead treatments on cancerous growths.  At the time, lead was known then as an abortifacient which acted as a poison on chorionic cells.

Blair-Bell’s experimental trials, which he carried out with the Cancer Team of the Liverpool Medical Research organisation, had widely varying results. Some patients survived for many years afterwards, tumour free, but the majority unfortunately died while still under treatment.

During his search for a cure, Blair-Bell cast an incredibly wide net. He included members of the public as well as medical professionals when he called for suggestions for treating cancer. Blair-Bell soon received several unusual replies, which he put aside as “Cancer Curiosities”. These letters detailed the experiences of people from all over the world who claimed to have beaten cancer with treatments ranging from zinc ointment to quick lime.

Read more…

Stephen McGann from BBC’s Call the Midwife visits the RCOG

For today’s Explore Your Archive post, themed around ‘A Year in Archives’, we’re taking a short detour from the life, work and times of William Blair-Bell to focus on the achievements of our College’s library and heritage services. This year has been a busy one for us. We welcomed a new Archivist as well as a new Curator for the College’s museum collections.

Actor Stephen McGann beside images from the historic photograph collections Royal College of Midwives, which are housed at the RCOG.

Actor Stephen McGann beside images from the historic photograph collections Royal College of Midwives, which are housed at the RCOG.

The museum collection has been a fixture of the College since 1938. The College Museum collected and displayed pathological specimens and surgical and obstetrical instruments charting the history of obstetrics and gynaecology. From 1988, following the transfer of most specimens to other hospitals, the Museum refocused on displaying rare obstetric instruments. These include the Chamberlen forceps, the first modern forceps made and used in Europe in the 17th century.

In addition to these treasures, the College is also home to the museum collection of the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), which features midwives’ bags, uniforms and badges.

On the 17th November, we displayed these incredible heritage collections as part of an exclusive exhibition for An Audience with Stephen McGann. During the event, Stephen spoke about his role on the series and gave his perspective on the evolution of doctor-patient relationships in Britain. The event was organised in collaboration with the College of Medicine and hosted at the RCOG’s headquarters near Regent’s Park.

Over 100 guests attended the evening and took in highlights from both the RCOG and RCM’s collections including a 1914 student midwife’s casebook and obstetric forceps designed by renowned Scottish obstetrician William Smellie.

The evening was a huge success and marked the start of a brave new era for the RCOG and RCM’s museum collections. Further exciting exhibitions, open days and heritage events are in the works for 2017.

Watch this space!

A Very Recognisable Head of Hair

Look at any group photograph of the Gynaecological Visiting Society and one head always stands out: that of the GVS’s and the RCOG’s co-founder William Blair-Bell. In a sea of dark hair and balding heads, Blair-Bell’s head of striking white hair (which, according to his friend Fletcher Shaw, ‘time whitened without thinning’) is instantly recognisable.

Photograph of the Gynaecological Visiting Society taken during a visit to the Royal Infirmary, Liverpool, featuring William Blair-Bell (centre, in white), Ewen Maclean, Eardley Holland, and Miles Phillips, in 1931

Photograph of the Gynaecological Visiting Society taken during a visit to the Royal Infirmary, Liverpool, featuring William Blair-Bell (centre, in white), Ewen Maclean, Eardley Holland, and Miles Phillips, in 1931

Today’s Explore Your Archive theme is ‘hairy archives’ and tips its head at the tradition of Movember (the annual event involving the growing of moustaches during the month of November to raise awareness of men’s health care). While you would be hard-pressed to spot a moustache among these neatly clipped and coiffed surgeons, we do know a little about their grooming habits courtesy of the RCOG Archive.

Per Blair-Bell’s personal correspondence, his go-to hairdresser was a Mr H. Hart of Liverpool.

Mr Hart would make house calls to Blair-Bell’s estate in Eardistone to given him a trim as often as once a month between 1928 and 1930. When Mr Hart fell ill and had to postpone his next visit, Blair-Bell chose to wait another week for his appointment rather than call on a different barber.

It is not surprising that Blair-Bell had a preferred hairdresser. He was infamous for having very particular taste in presentation. He was instrumental in designing the College’s crest, robes and seal. Our Archives contain several letters and memos from him to his colleagues where he would outline his vision for the College and its future in meticulous detail.

During the early years of the College, Blair-Bell suffered from illness and had to travel frequently between Liverpool and London for meetings and social events. However, his physical appearance had to reflect his professionalism and his unwavering confidence in the College and its future.

In honour of this Movember, we now know who was responsible for the bold, no-nonsense hairstyle that Blair-Bell sports proudly in his Presidential portrait.

Good job, Mr Hart.


Free Exhibit at the RCOG Library

Many Charming Letters

A selection of charming, amusing and illuminating letters exchanged between RCOG co-founders William Blair-Bell and William Fletcher Shaw during the early years of the College will be on display in the RCOG Library Reading Room from Monday 21st November.

Joining these letters will be artefacts from the College’s heritage collections including William Fletcher Shaw’s obstetric instruments, William Blair-Bell’s original designs for the College’s official seal, and the badge worn by the College’s Presidents at official ceremonies.

Close up of William Blair-Bell and his trademark hairstyle, 1930.

Close up of William Blair-Bell and his trademark hairstyle, 1930.

Entry is free and commemorative postcards will be on sale in the Library and at the College reception desk.

Visit us:

Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologist
27 Sussex Place
Regent’s Park
London NW1 4RG
https://www.rcog.org.uk/en/contact-us/directions/

Explore Your Archive

Explore Your Archive is a campaign designed for archives of all kinds throughout the UK and Ireland. It is run by The National Archives and the Archives and Records Association. This year the main launch week will run from 19 to 27 November 2016. 

Find out more at http://exploreyourarchive.org/

 

No Simple Affair: the College’s First Annual Dinner

Today Explore Your Archive is about firsts: the pioneers, the maiden voyages, and new beginnings. One of our favourite ‘firsts’ captured in our Archive is the College’s first Annual Dinner.

Read more…

“Many Charming Letters” from Blair-Bell to Fletcher Shaw

Today’s post for Explore Your Archive Week offers a sneak peek at our latest exhibit, which opens in the RCOG Library tomorrow. Our exhibit “Many Charming Letters” showcases the founding years of the College through the letters, mementos and photographs of its founders, William Blair-Bell and William Fletcher Shaw.

A star of the exhibit is a series of “charming” and affectionate letters sent to Fletcher Shaw and his wife Nora Shaw by Blair-Bell between 1929 and 1933. Kept aside and marked ‘charming private letters’ by Fletcher Shaw himself, these letters offer a more personal look at the relationship between these key founding figures of the RCOG.

Complementing these letters are extracts from the unedited version of Fletcher Shaw’s book Twenty-five years: the story of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

“No one could express himself better in writing, and I received many charming letters from him, beautifully worded and striking just the right note of sympathy or joy as the occasion required.”
William Fletcher Shaw

“When I recall those hectic days my wonder is not that there are so few [letters] but that there are any at all.”
William Fletcher Shaw

Read more…

‘A felicitous courtship…’ Blair-Bell and the Founding of the Gynaecological Visiting Society

Today’s Explore Your Archive blog post takes a quick look at Blair-Bell’s ‘first baby’: The Gynaecological Visiting Society.

RCOG co-founder William Blair-Bell was certainly a powerhouse in the world of obstetrics and gynaecology, juggling research, publication and teaching positions during his busy career. But even he knew that without a network of strong medical practitioners behind him, his research could only go so far.

So in 1911 he founded the Gynaecological Visiting Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Blair-Bell had only been on the staff of a teaching hospital for six years when he approached his London and province-based peers. He certainly wasn’t lacking in confidence!

Annotated group photograph of the Gynaecological Visiting Society in Cardiff in 1925, featuring RCOG co-founders William Blair-Bell and William Fletcher Shaw (from left).

Annotated group photograph of the Gynaecological Visiting Society in Cardiff in 1925, featuring RCOG co-founders William Blair-Bell and William Fletcher Shaw (from left).

A professional network and social group for male gynaecologists combined, the GVS encouraged the demonstration and sharing of scientific research (The Women’s Gynaecological Visiting Club, for female gynaecologists, was founded in 1936 by Hilda Lloyd, who later went on to be the RCOG’s first female president). It brought practitioners together for nation-wide and overseas travel, dining and drinks.

The original members of the college included some of the leading gynaecologists of the time including Russell Andrews, Comyns Berkeley, W.E. Fothergill, Eardley Holland, Ewan MacLean, Miles Phillips and Victor Bonney. Many of these men went on to form the backbone of the RCOG’s first Council in 1929.

Photograph of the Gynaecological Visiting Society taken during a visit to the Royal Infirmary, Liverpool, featuring William Blair-Bell (centre, in white), Ewen Maclean, Eardley Holland, and Miles Phillips, in 1931

Photograph of the Gynaecological Visiting Society taken during a visit to the Royal Infirmary, Liverpool, featuring William Blair-Bell (centre, in white), Ewen Maclean, Eardley Holland, and Miles Phillips, in 1931

Blair-Bell’s speech from the first meeting of the society on 24th April 1931 demonstrates his flair for the dramatic and his love of a long metaphor:

‘The Gynaecological Visiting Society of Great Britain came into existence with every sign of maturity on April 24th 1911, after a felicitous courtship and effective psychological insemination on the part of its father, who took to himself many partners in order to produce this polysomatic offspring. Never had a child so many willing parents […] for although the process of parturition could hardly be described as a dry one, yet not one drop of blood was spilled.’

As colourful as he was here, Blair-Bell didn’t exaggerate when he said their meetings weren’t ‘dry’. They could be loud and riotous as drinking during social hours was a major fixture of a GVS event. Bethel Solomons ended one letter to Blair-Bell in June 1930 with:

‘I enjoyed my first tour with the GVS enormously. I hope you got home safe and sound, and that you have suffered no ill effects from your mixed drinks!’

Blair-Bell’s last act as the society’s president was to arrange a dinner for the members of the GVS at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool on 25th September 1931. Their gift to him? A Rothenstein portrait of Blair-Bell, two copies of which are held at Blair-Bell’s other offspring: the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.


Free Exhibit at the RCOG Library

Many Charming Letters

A small selection of charming, amusing and illuminating letters exchanged between RCOG co-founders William Blair-Bell and William Fletcher Shaw during the early years of the College will be on display in the RCOG Library Reading Room from Monday 21st November.

A copy of Rothenstein's portrait of William Blair-Bell, inscribed, as a gift to Beckwith Whitehouse (1931).

A copy of Rothenstein’s portrait of William Blair-Bell, inscribed, as a gift to Beckwith Whitehouse (1931).

Joining these letters will be artefacts from the College’s heritage collections including William Fletcher Shaw’s obstetric instruments, William Blair-Bell’s original designs for the College’s official seal, and the badge worn by the College’s Presidents at official ceremonies.

Entry is free and commemorative postcards will be on sale in the Library and at the College reception desk.

Visit us:

Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologist
27 Sussex Place
Regent’s Park
London NW1 4RG
https://www.rcog.org.uk/en/contact-us/directions/

Explore Your Archive

Explore Your Archive is a campaign designed for archives of all kinds throughout the UK and Ireland. It is run by The National Archives and the Archives and Records Association. This year the main launch week will run from 19 to 27 November 2016. 

Find out more at http://exploreyourarchive.org/

Blair-Bell through the Eyes of a Friend and Colleague: extracts from the diaries of William Fletcher Shaw

As we edge ever closer to Explore Your Archive Week, it is only fitting that we give a nod to a figure who did much to capture and preserve the early history of the RCOG: College co-founder William Fletcher Shaw (1878-1961).

Signed photograph of William Fletcher Shaw inscribed with the words: "To Blair Bell in remembrance of the happy meetings of the provisional committee of our College 1924-1927 from his friend William Fletcher Shaw"

Signed photograph of William Fletcher Shaw inscribed with the words: “To Blair Bell in remembrance of the happy meetings of the provisional committee of our College 1924-1927 from his friend William Fletcher Shaw”

It was Fletcher Shaw who first approached William Blair-Bell with the idea of founding a college for obstetricians and gynaecologists. The two were not the first to raise the idea, but they were the ones who were ultimately successful in seeing it made a reality.

In the unpublished draft versions of his history of the RCOG, which is held in our Archives, Fletcher Shaw wrote:

“[Blair-Bell and I] realised […] that [obstetricians and gynaecologists] were as much one leg of the tripod of medicine as were general medicine and general surgery and we were prepared to assert that belief and to win.”

Fletcher Shaw’s extensive archive, which formed the basis of his published history of the first 25 years of the RCOG, is a treasure trove of detailed correspondence, memos, notes and other gems exchanged between the College’s founding members. As the College’s first Honorary Secretary, Fletcher Shaw kept meticulous records, each document annotated with the initials of the sender and a running number.

But what about his partnership with Blair-Bell? How did that relationship shape the College’s in its first years? And what does Fletcher Shaw’s archive tell us about both men?

In the 1950s, Fletcher Shaw pieced together an account of the College’s first decades. However, the published version of his work was heavily edited to avoid causing controversy and offense to his colleagues. One such edit is the story of Fletcher Shaw’s first and rather unflattering impressions of Blair-Bell:

“[Blair-Bell] was always very civil to me and never made any remark in any discussion or privately to which I could take any exception.

Nevertheless, he repelled me, due I think, to his egotism and unnecessarily biting criticism of other people. Even when I was made a member of the Gynaecological Visiting Society in 1914 and he sometimes seemed to go out of his way to be friendly I could never feel quite comfortable with him, and I’m afraid I rather avoided him.”

Fletcher Shaw goes on to write:

“… I received a note from Blair-Bell asking me to shoot with him. Not having any desire to spend a whole day with him I refused, but a second invitation a few weeks later could not be refused without great rudeness, and so without any pleasurable anticipation, I accepted.

It was the end of the season and there was just the two of us and a keeper. We pottered about all day, Blair-Bell proved himself a most delightful host, as I was so often in later years to find him; gradually I thawed and so began a friendship which was to culminate in the foundation of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.”

“I supplied the original plans [for the College]: [Blair-Bell] carried these to a higher plane, refused to compromise our claims to equality with the other Colleges, carried out publicly the spectacular part which no one else would have had the nerve to do I filled in much of the administrative detail and prevented some of the major clashes of personality which would have wrecked our early scheme.

It was a curious way to begin a friendship.”

Detail from a group photograph of the Gynaecological Visiting Society in Cardiff in 1925, featuring RCOG co-founders William Blair-Bell and William Fletcher Shaw shortly before deciding to found a College for obstetricians and gynaecologists.

Detail from a group photograph of the Gynaecological Visiting Society in Cardiff in 1925, featuring RCOG co-founders William Blair-Bell and William Fletcher Shaw shortly before deciding to found a College for obstetricians and gynaecologists.

This shooting party was the first of many the two men shared and they became regular fixtures at each other’s homes. Blair-Bell in particular became good friends with Fletcher Shaw’s wife, Nora.

As complicated and dual-sided as Fletcher Shaw’s feelings were towards his College co-founder, you cannot miss Fletcher Shaw’s lasting respect and gratitude for the Blair-Bell’s role in pushing the College through towards its goals.

“… I might have compromised on essentials but for the unmoving position of Blair-Bell. The two which are prominent in my mind are the foundation of the College as a College and not as an Association, and the other the retention of powers to examine. The importance of this I did not realise as did Blair-Bell and I’ve been more than grateful to him in recent year for what at that time seemed implacable determination.”

and

“Reading this correspondence again I am more than ever convinced that but for the combination of Blair-Bell and myself [the College] could not have been successfully launched.”

Sadly, towards the end of Blair-Bell’s life his friendship with Fletcher Shaw almost fell apart completely. This was down to long-running conflicts over the appointment of a male secretary to supplant the College’s longstanding secretary Winnifred Mallon and Blair-Bell’s disappointment over Fletcher Shaw not immediately running for College president after the end of Blair-Bell’s term. On being notified of Blair-Bell’s death in January 1936, Fletcher Shaw wrote in his diary:

“During all those long years in the formation of the College we worked intimately together, appreciated each other’s qualities, overlooking faults and were great friends.

Unfortunately, he did not like me to continue as Honorary Secretary after he had left and when he tried to supersede Miss Mallon I had to oppose him and so a coolness arose, but lately this was disappearing and I had hoped that we might have gradually resumed our old intimacy. Now that is not to be.”

But the worst was yet to come. In his will, Blair-Bell had left a substantial sum to the College but had stipulated that the money was to be released only after every member of the College’s Finance and Executive Committee, who had served during his presidency, had died (which resulted in the money being held gathering interest until 1968).

“Poor Blair-Bell. How nearly he came to being a great, and how dismally he failed.” wrote Fletcher Shaw in his diary on 8th February 1936, “I have promised to write an appreciation of him for the B.E.J. How I wish I had done this before I knew about the contents of this will.”

What strikes me most about Fletcher Shaw’s accounts of Blair-Bell are the times he struggled to understand his colleague. He speculated in the end that Blair-Bell’s troubled marriage and the death of his wife years before contributed to his inability to maintain healthy relationships with those he cared for.

After his own term as president of the College during the Second World War, Fletcher Shaw’s views on Blair-Bell had developed enough that he felt he could commit them to paper; ‘…time modifies most things’ he wrote in a letter to his son David in 1941, when sharing extracts of the diaries he wrote during the founding years of the RCOG.

When Fletcher Shaw sat to write his history of the College he must have deliberated on how best to remember his colleague and friend. In the end, it seems that he chose not to embellish or diminish him. He chose to remember both the good and the bad of the man he knew:

“Blair-Bell seemed to have a faculty for quarrelling and unfortunately could never bring himself to acknowledge that he was in the wrong, even when he knew in his heart of hearts that the fault was his, and that a frank apology would put things right again.

[…]

And yet he could be a most delightful companion and generous friend, showing at his very best with young people and animals. To young people he never talked down, but so interested them that they talked up to him and rejoiced in his companionship. If only fate had endowed him with a family, how much happier and mellower he would have been.

[…]

Many people looked upon Blair-Bell as hard, implacable, egotistical and quarrelsome, and never realised that, under the surface, he hungered for sympathy.”


Free Exhibit at the RCOG Library

Many Charming Letters

A small selection of charming, amusing and illuminating letters exchanged between RCOG co-founders William Blair-Bell and William Fletcher Shaw during the early years of the College will be on display in the RCOG Library Reading Room from Monday 21st November.

Professor William Blair-Bell (centre) with colleagues, including Professor Miles Harris Philips (left), deep in discussion, c. 1930.

Professor William Blair-Bell (centre) with colleagues, including Professor Miles Harris Philips (left), deep in discussion, c. 1930.

Joining these letters will be artefacts from the College’s heritage collections including William Fletcher Shaw’s obstetric instruments, William Blair-Bell’s original designs for the College’s official seal, and the badge worn by the College’s Presidents at official ceremonies.

Viewing is free and commemorative postcards will be on sale in the Library and at the College reception desk.

Visit us:

Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologist
27 Sussex Place
Regent’s Park
London NW1 4RG
https://www.rcog.org.uk/en/contact-us/directions/

Explore Your Archive

Explore Your Archive is a campaign designed for archives of all kinds throughout the UK and Ireland. It is run by The National Archives and the Archives and Records Association. This year the main launch week will run from 19 to 27 November 2016. 

Find out more at http://exploreyourarchive.org/

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