Heritage collections relating to women's health

Fantastic Finds for Friday: Roses for Valentine’s Day?


Valentine’s Day. Not much romance in a medical college devoted to obstetrics and gynaecology, I thought, as I wracked my brains to come up with a blog post for this week. So my mind drifted from hearts and chocolates to roses, then the nursery song, ‘Ring a Ring of Roses’ popped into my head, and it came to me – the plague! Surely there is something in the RCOG Archive about the plague! (Apologies to those sceptics who have a different view to the popular nursery song’s interpretation!) Typing the word ‘plague’ into the database, I must admit that I was slightly surprised to find that yes, we did have something!

Blair-Bell with one of his dogs, c.1930 Reference RCOG/PH1/1/3b

Blair-Bell with one of his dogs, c.1930 Reference RCOG/PH1/1/3b

Among the papers of RCOG co-founder, William Blair-Bell, Professor of Midwifery at the University of Liverpool, can be found a notebook of handwritten notes kept by him, possibly as a medical student at King’s College Hospital between 1890 and 1896. Blair-Bell showed an early interest in disease of women, winning the Tanner Prize at King’s in 1895 (an award held in memory of the pioneer in diseases of women and children), and this notebook, entitled ‘Specific Infectious Diseases’ has detailed information about a host of diseases, from typhoid fever (‘occurs in our crowded badly sanitated neighbourhoods…the bacterium undiscovered’) smallpox (‘Negros especially susceptible’), scarlet fever, rubella, whooping cough, meningitis (affected by ‘mental & bodily depression, heat & squalor of large tenements’), leprosy and gout (helpfully illustrated by him as below!).

Page from Blair-Bell's notebook c.1890 Reference S1/1/7

Page from Blair-Bell’s notebook c.1890 Reference S1/1/7

A loose sheet tucked in the back of the notebook contains notes on the plague, including pathological details such as ‘killed in 30 mins by temp of 170F’ and a clinical history of major cases described as:

‘Onset quite sudden usually. There may be observed: 1) Nervous system – vertigo headache, staggering gait, passing into lethargy 2) Face paled, eyes infected…refusal to answer questions 3) Ordinary febrile pains in limbs, muscular weakness etc. 4) Tongue thick.. 5) Bilous vomiting….Buboes always occur in lymphatic glands…If the bubous…disappear it is almost a certain sign that death will ensue….Drugs tried have been useless’

Blair-Bell notebooks, c.1890

Blair-Bell notebooks, c.1890

I doubt if Blair-Bell had cause to test his theoretical knowledge of the plague, but he most certainly would have come across some of the other infections in late Victorian London, and Liverpool, where he returned after his studies to set up a private practice.

There are also some sheets of ‘diagrams of the nervous system in relation to lesions and diseases’ containing some very nice drawings by Blair-Bell of the brain and lungs, but sadly (for the purposes of a Valentine’s blog) none of the heart!

Fantastic Finds for Friday: William Smellie, the ‘Father of Midwifery’

I was recently asked by the College’s President about our holdings on the ‘Father of Midwifery’ William Smellie, and I must admit that the resulting list was quite impressive! So as our Fantastic Find for Friday, I thought I would bring an overview of some of the fantastic sources we hold in the College Archive and Library relating to William Smellie.

First though – a brief introduction. William Smellie (1697 – 1763) was born and educated in the town of Lanark, in Scotland, and probably received his medical education in Glasgow. In 1720 he commenced practice as a surgeon and apothecary in Lanark. He remained a country practitioner for almost twenty years. In 1724 he married Eupham Borland, but they had no children, and in 1733, Smellie became a member of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. Smellie obtained his medical doctorate from the University of Glasgow in 1745.

William Smellie

William Smellie

Following studies in Paris, where he attended lectures on midwifery, he went to London in 1739 and established a pharmacy. In London, William Hunter (1718-1783) came to live with him, and he began to give obstetrical lecture-demonstrations to midwives and medical students from 1741.The courses attracted large numbers of students, and his teaching is described by a pupil as “distinct, mechanical, and unreserved.” His fee for a single course was three guineas. He delivered poor women free of charge if his students were allowed to attend the delivery, thus establishing a trend towards the attendance of medically trained persons at childbirth.

Smellie had a prospering practice, and in 1759 he retired to Lanark to devote the last years of his life to completing his literary works. He established an estate outside the town, and there died on 5 March 1763. He was buried near the church of St. Kentigern in Lanark, where his grave is marked by a tombstone and inscription.

Smellie always emphasised the importance of the natural birth process, and in general advised against resorting to surgical methods. He is best known for his descriptions of “the mechanisms of labour”, or how the infant’s head adapts to changes in the pelvic canal during birth. To him are owed the first attempts to measure the foetal cranium in utero. Smellie was also reluctant to use the forceps, and permitted caesarean section only in the most extreme cases of narrow pelvis. To him the life of the mother always had priority to that of her offspring, so, when he saw it necessary, he never hesitated to perforate and destroy the brain of the foetus in order to save the mother. Smellie developed various types of obstetric forceps, some with lock and curved blades, called Smellie’s forceps. He developed craniotomy scissors – Smellie’s scissors – and the method of delivery of the after-coming head with the child resting on the physicians forearm is known as the Smellie method. This was a rational attitude considering infant mortality at his time.

Theory and Practice of Midwifery


The RCOG Rare Book Collection contains first and third editions of Smellie’s Treatise on the theory and practice of midwifery (1752), which examines all aspects of the position of the foetus in uterus, the delivery, and pregnancy complications, including this description of twins:

‘When two children are distinct, they are called twins; and monsters when they are joined together; the first…are produced when different Animalcula impregnant different Ova; and the last are engendered when two or more Animalcula introduce themselves, and are included in one Ovum’.

Also in the library can be found Smellie’s Anatomical Tables, including outstanding anatomical drawings of the female body and developing infant, together with transcriptions of the medical lectures given by him (1764) and pamphlets relating to the development of the forceps and other medical instruments.


Page from Professor Miles Harris Phillips' research notes on Smellie

Page from Professor Miles Harris Phillips’ research notes on Smellie

The RCOG Archive has some little treasures which complement these publications, most notably the original printed issue of The Daily Advertiser, Wednesday 8 October 1746, which features advertisements for a course of lectures in midwifery by William Smellie, as well as lectures in physic and midwifery by Sir Richard Manningham, and lectures in anatomy by William Hunter. There is also a mounted printed certificate issued to one John Harvie and signed by William Smellie for attendance at lectures on midwifery, December 1757. Gilbert Strachan’s collection of engravings of eminent obstetricians includes a very distinguished looking Smellie, and three boxes of papers reside in the College Archive Store collected by Foundation Fellow, Professor Miles Harris Phillips which reflect the very real interest Smellie and his work had for his successors. Phillips analysed the publications of Smellie, he discussed his works with other eminent medical historians of the 1930s and 1950s, he even organised the restoration of Smellie’s library in Lanark, starting a fund for conservation of the books.


William Smellie's Library

William Smellie’s Library

Research into William Smellie would not be complete without reference to the obstetric instruments he pioneered, many of which can be found in the RCOG Museum collection. These include 8 sets of forceps (not including the wooden facsimiles) and a crotchet dating from 1750, which can all be attributed to Smellie.

Smellie's forceps

Smellie’s forceps


This is just an overview of some of the rare and unique items which can be found in the collections at the RCOG: all these items are available for research by appointment in the College Library – email archives@rcog.org.uk for more details.

Fantastic Finds for Friday: RCOG Christmas Cards

1931 Christmas Card

1930 Christmas Card







RCOG co-founder, Professor William Blair-Bell, can be credited with starting the Christmas card tradition at the College, with his card to the Fellows and Members in 1930, in a move which he explained to his Honorary Secretary, William Fletcher Shaw, as a way to ‘increase the personal interest of the Fellows and Members in the College’. This first card was very simple: the College crest in colour with description of the College arms on the reverse, and sent from Professor Blair-Bell’s private rooms in Rodney Street, Liverpool.

A second card in 1931 apparently included an illustration of the College robes worn by Fellows and Members, but sadly a copy of this card has not survived. However, we do have the card sent out in 1934 by College Honorary Treasurer, Eardley Holland, later to become President of the College. Inside this card was a chart showing progress of income and funds for the College from 1929 and the optimistic hope inscribed on the reverse that Fellows and Members ‘will keep this for recording Amounts year by year from the Annual Reports’.

Eardley Holland's card

Eardley Holland’s card

It was Sir William Fletcher Shaw who revived the custom of sending cards at Christmas to the membership, and in 1938 he sent a replica of Blair-Bell’s original card. A follow-up was forestalled by the Second World War, ‘a time of anxiety and cards seemed out of place…The following year things were too desperate to allow of the printing or posting of cards.’ It was Sir Arthur Gemmell who began again the festive tradition, and although his cards were rather austere, the 1954 card made an attempt to celebrate the College’s Silver Jubilee year.


1954 Silver Jubilee card

1954 Silver Jubilee card

However, it is not the cards sent out by College Presidents that interested me most on searching through the College Archive, but this rather unexpected find of a card signed by Clementine Churchill, wife of Sir Winston Churchill. It shows the great statesman dressed in military uniform and rubber boots in the snow, the trademark cigar in his mouth, and on the reverse, Sir William Fletcher Shaw had written ‘Christmas card from Mrs Winston Churchill with whom we worked closely on pregnant wives and the armed forces in World War II’.

Clementine Churchill's card

Clementine Churchill’s card


Explore Your Archive 2014: A volunteer’s experience at the RCOG

Chiara Codeluppi joined the archive at the RCOG in October 2014 on a voluntary work experience placement to learn more about how archives are managed in the UK and to extend her already extensive archival experience. Getting to grips with Adlib and records management processes, her enthusiasm is evident in both her work and in the following article, which she wrote for Explore Your Archives week.

My name is Chiara and I am an Italian archivist in London. My passion for historical documents and for the archives comes from the love I feel for history. This passion grew up when I was writing my degree thesis: I had to attend several archives to write it, and in that moment I understood how fascinating places the archives are. Until that moment, I had studied history in the books, in an archive I could study history directly from the source!

So, after getting my degree in art, I decided to go the School of Archive, Paleography and Diplomatics at the Archivio di Stato of Modena; I got my Diploma in June 2008 and, with a lot of enthusiasm, I started to work: at first, I had an internship at the Regio Theatre in Parma, then I worked in Municipality Archives, I digitized a bank archive and I worked as genealogist.

At the beginning of this year the enthusiasm I had in 2008 was totally disappeared: in Italy, with the economic crisis, the funds for Cultural Heritage have been reduced, sometimes withdrawn, so a lot of people, like me, who decided to work in this field, have lost their job.

So, in June of this year I decided to move here in London. Before coming here, I had an interview via Skype with the archivist at Transport for London Corporate Archive; in June I started my experience at the TfL Corporate Archive. Now, I am volunteering in two archives: I began in the Archive of Neurology and Neurosurgery (Queen Square Library) in August and at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists last month.

What does being a volunteer in an archive here mean?

For me, means two things. First, I am learning a job, I am learning experience and with the responsibilities I have, day by day, I feel more sure of myself as archivist in a country which is not mine.

Second, through the way you [archivists in the UK] have to take care about your archives, and their development, is possible to see the respect you have for your past and for your history. Furthermore, through everything you do related to the archives promotion, is possible to see the passion which you have.

For this reason I am learning not just a job: the archivists I have met here are an example to follow and I do hope I will able to live up to them.

Explore Your Archives 2014: ARCHI’VE DISCOVERED!

As I see it, Explore Your Archive week is as much about telling everyone about the amazing stories which have been discovered as well as those which still wait to be told, and here among the collections of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of Midwives, there have been two wonderful stories which are just crying out to be shared!

The first relates to a story already shared on this blog back in November 2012, about a midwife, Eveland Hutchings, and her attempts to get the King’s Bounty for a mother she had recently delivered of triplets. Eveland worked as a midwife during the 1920s and was enrolled on the register of the Central Midwives Board in 1921. The collection of papers here at the RCOG feature photographs of her with the children she helped to deliver, together with a letter from the Privy Purse Office at Buckingham Palace, dated January 1926, referring to her application to get a £3 bounty for Mr and Mrs Stevenson of Ilkeston, to help them with the financial burden of having triplets. As a result of this blog, featuring the photograph of Eveland Hutchings with the Ilkeston triplets, the son and daughter of one of the triplets contacted the archive, having found this previously unseen photograph of their mother as a baby with the midwife who delivered her!

Ilkeston triplets

The second story is just as wonderful and also relates to a case of lost and found! In the absence of a full online catalogue, the RCOG and RCM have parts of their archive catalogue included on a national network of catalogues, the Archives Hub. It was the inclusion on the Hub of a special collection of papers relating to obstetrician Dr Walter Spitzer which reunited a family in New Zealand with the son of the obstetrician who saved their mother’s life! Dr Spitzer was a Czech obstetrician and gynaecologist who came to England at the outbreak of the Second World War under a refugee scheme. He subsequently found a position at Kingston Hospital, but his application for Membership of the RCOG was unsuccessful due to requirements of training in the UK. Eric Holman contacted the archive in May 2014 in great excitement:

‘…I have just had the most wonderful news from looking at your website. I have been searching for some years now for information on Dr Walter Spitzer who saved both my mother’s and my life in 1946 in Kingston County Hospital.’

Dr Spitzer attended Eric’s mother when the Harley Street surgeon responsible for the case had handed her over to him, having given up on the chances of her recovery after she suffered fits and an emergency Caesarean Section.

‘My mother told me Dr Spitzer had asked my parents if they would mind writing a testimonial of the expertise and care he provided so as to help get his medical credentials recognised in the UK…we were so happy to see his good work continued in England and that he spent many years at his chosen profession.’

Through the medium of the archive staff, Eric was put in touch with Walter Spitzer’s son, who lives in London and was responsible for donating the papers to the RCOG. The two went on to share stories and photographs, so adding another dimension to the records already held in the archive.


Explore Your Archives 2014: A Day in the Life of an Archivist

As part of yesterday’s national Twitter event among archivists to celebrate Explore Your Archives by tweeting their typical day, I decided that mine would take the form of a blog post. Thus a run-down of my day as Archivist and Records Manager here at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists!

8am – in early to deal with some secure disposals of confidential material resulting from this month’s review of semi-current records. Picked up record (for us) amount of emails resulting from yesterday’s television appearance for Explore Your Archives – at least one being an offer of a donation for the RCM archive.

8.30am – all staff email sent following up clearing up the College shared drive, this time asking staff to delete duplicate and draft files as well as look out for images.

9am – appraisal of boxes of semi-current records

9.30am – guided reader through archive catalogue and discussed possible avenues of research

10am – meeting with staff member to give advice about retention of records, in particular taking responsibility for deleting own digital records at end of retention period.

10.45am – talk with volunteer about contributing her experiences to blog

11am – tweeted link to 1WW blog post from August in time for 2 minute silence.

11.02am – continued appraisal of boxes

11.30am to midday – answered emails with enquiries, offers of material etc.

12.30pm – pulled together records management advice and policies for external but affiliated organisation.

1pm – 4pm – on library enquiry desk, but no archive readers in this afternoon so assisting with general library enquiries.

1pm – completed paperwork required in response to a reproduction request from one of the College’s guidelines.

1.30pm – clear up inbox!!!

2pm – cataloguing of President’s papers, 1970s – bringing legacy catalogue entries on Adlib up to ISAD(G) and also looking out for any stories during the process.

4pm – return all items to store.


Look out for more posts to the blog this week as part of Explore Your Archives week!



Fantastic Finds for Friday: Professor Geoffrey Chamberlain

Our Fantastic Finds for Friday this week follows up the sad news last week of the death of former RCOG President, Professor Geoffrey Chamberlain. Knowing from my previous trawls through the archive that Professor Chamberlain had a choice way with words, I sought out a file of his personal correspondence, collated between 1993 and 1994 when he was College President. I was not disappointed, as the extracts below will show!

November 1993 – on agreeing to undertake a talk at the RCOG for first-year preclinical students on the history of medicine for the Wellcome Trust/Society of Apothecaries course: ‘I would, of course, be happy to meet your students at the museum of the RCOG…I will keep about an hour clear and will take them through the stories of obstetrics, called by polite people history.’

November 1993 – in reply to a congratulatory letter from Arnold Klopper FRCOG, an old friend: ‘I am aware of the problems of medicine at the moment. These are being forced down my neck like a cold snowball every day by the Department of Health removal of central control and rushing head long down the hill like the swine after market forces. I shall fight them, for I have basically a socialist background and will try to ensure that the College maintains standards.’

April 1994 – on providing a testimony for Angela Kilmartin, a pioneer in research into cystitis, he wrote: ‘I enclose a foreword for her book. I did write an earlier version of this, but the dictation tape got de-magnetised and in consequence it could not be heard by my staff. That is a modern variation on the fact that the manuscript was eaten by a dog.’

My favourite piece from this file (and the one which brought a smile to my face and a glance down at my own feet) is the page torn out from the Daily Mail, April 1994, with a fashion article about the wearers of Doctor Marten boots. And as can be seen below, our own Professor Chamberlain was included as a dedicated DM wearer! He explains in the article that ‘I bought my first pair four years ago. A doctor is on his feet a lot and Doctor Marten’s are jolly comfortable. The other consultants were very complimentary. I’ve also got a pair of DM evening shoes which I use for dancing. The image of the football fan with metal caps is one end of the range. This is the other end.’

Professor Chamberlain


Fantastic Finds for Friday: ‘Letters from Dad’ 1925

Today’s Fantastic Find for Friday comes from the papers of RCOG co-founder William Fletcher Shaw, and is something which really shows how unexpected items can crop up in an archive collection. In May 1925, William Fletcher Shaw toured France with his wife, and sent back home to his 11 year old son, William Meredith, letters which were later typed up and bound. Fletcher Shaw senior had just been appointed to the Chair of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Manchester, and was obviously making the most of the summer vacation; William Meredith Fletcher Shaw was at boarding school. It starts off ‘I wonder if you know anything about French history? I knew nothing about it when I was a boy…During this holiday I have taken photographs of Chateaux which have played important parts in French history and if I send these to you with a short description of what occurred in them I think you will understand much more of French history than I knew until I grew up.’ He goes on to describe how the history of French and English rulers was intertwined over the years, and his own feelings on seeing these historic sites, including the ruins of the Castle of Chinon, the abbey at Poitiers, and the story of Joan of Arc.

Chinon Castle today

Chinon Castle today

Photograph of Chinon Chateaux taken by William Fletcher Shaw, 1925

Photograph of Chinon Chateaux taken by William Fletcher Shaw, 1925

The letters also include a very emotive description of the dungeons at the Castle of Loches: ‘Just imagine spending years in a room in which nothing can ever be seen, just black unfathomable darkness and yet one man at least spent 12 years here and came out alive. This room was also used for the purpose of getting rid of undesirable prisoners without the necessity of bringing them to trial. An opening in one corner dropped straight down a shaft into the river below; this opening could be left uncovered and the prisoner, unused to the darkness in his made despair feeling along the walls in the hope of finding some door or opening would suddenly fall down and be heard of no more.’ This attempt to educate his son in French history seems bittersweet given that William the younger was destined to die on the battlefields of Normandy in 1944 at the age of 30. This sad fact was summarised by Professor Robert W Johnstone in 1950 in the preface to his William Meredith Fletcher Shaw Memorial Lecture: ‘My personal recollection of him is of a lively and most attractive youth who was determined to do all that lay in his power to ensure the comfort and entertainment of his father’s guests. The same unselfish energy led him early into the Territorial Army, and after six years of active service he was killed in Normandy in the performance of a duty calling for sustained and cold courage of the highest order. Posthumously his gallantry was recognised by the award of the Military Cross.’

Fantastic Find for Friday: Some inspirational female Fellows!

Our Fantastic Find for Friday this week comes from the papers of the Women’s Visiting Gynaecological Club held here in the RCOG Archive (Reference S108). More specifically, it is this photograph, taken in Manchester in 1937, which prompted me to share this find with the heritage blog! As is the usual nature of our ‘fantastic finds’, I came across the photograph in the course of doing research for something totally unrelated to the blog, this time looking for photographs of the amazing female Fellows of the College who shared their medical skills actively during the First World War. What I found in this photograph was not only new images of Foundation Fellows Dame Louise McIlroy, Margaret Fairlie and Louise Martindale, but also Dame Hilda Lloyd, the only female President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and other ladies for whom we have never been able to find an image. (Photograph reproduced by kind permission of the WVGC)

Women's Visiting Gynaecological Club, 1937 [S108_2_1]

The Women’s Visiting Gynaecological Club was founded in 1936 by female Fellows of the British College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, spearheaded by Dame Hilda Lloyd and Alice Bloomfield, in response to the two other visiting clubs, the Gynaecological Visiting Society and the Gynaecological Club, which were closed to women. At this time there were only 12 women holding the FRCOG who were working in the UK, and 9 of these came together for the first WVGC meeting held in Manchester in 1937. The original regulations restricted membership to only Fellows of the RCOG guided by the principle of having a member in each important centre in England, Scotland and Wales, with not more than half the members representing London, and that they should be in clinical obstetric and gynaecological practice. Meetings were held annually and included a Club dinner.

The records were donated to the RCOG by Sheila Duncan FRCOG in January 2009 on behalf of the WVGC, and consist of a history of the club, minutes of meetings from 1951, and photographs of members, of which this is just one.

Fantastic Finds for Friday: New collection of anatomical drawings, 1840s

Our Fantastic Find for Friday this week is yet again a result of a recent cataloguing project, this time of a fascinating collection of drawings which was passed to the archives of the RCOG last year by our friends at the Royal College of Surgeons.

The watercolour and pen and ink anatomical drawings which comprise this collection were created by Joseph Griffiths Swayne (1819-1903), Professor of Midwifery at University College, Bristol. Swayne came from an established medical family based in Bristol, and his early work, following his graduation from the Bristol Medical School and Guy’s Hospital in London, was as a demonstrator and lecturer in anatomy at the Bristol Medical School. It is thought that it was during this time that he worked on a manual in which he etched illustrations of his own dissections onto copper, a work which was never published. Swayne went on to become physician accoucheur to the new maternity department at the Bristol General Hospital in 1853, and in 1893 was appointed to the chair at University College, Bristol. He is known chiefly for his midwifery text published in 1856 ‘Obstetric Aphorisms for the Use of Students’, of which there are six editions held in the College library, the earliest dating from 1880, and annotated pages from this text are included in the collection, possibly gathered together in preparation for an updated version.

The drawings were originally given to the Department of Surgery at Bristol Royal Infirmary by Joseph Swayne’s great-nephew: from there they found their way to the Royal College of Surgeons within the papers of a Fellow of that college. Swayne’s great-nephew wrote in 1974:

‘I think the Swayne ward at the BRI was named for all the members of my family who were associated through the years with the Infirmary…my great-grandfather and his brother did, also two of his sons and my father, his grandson.’

This family history is certainly a complex and fascinating one – the nephew of Joseph Swayne, Walter Carless Swayne, also a lecturer in midwifery at Bristol, was tragically shot in 1925 by his son-in-law, suffering from the effects of his traumatic First World War service.

The drawings within this collection have survived from Swayne’s anatomical work of the 1840s, and vary in quality and subject, covering obstetrical cases but also general surgical cases such as cancer, tumours and skin disease. Some of the images have been reproduced below, but it is hoped to display some of them in the College library in the near future.


Reference 2013/2 RCOG Archive

Reference 2013/2 RCOG Archive

Reference 2013/2 RCOG Archive

Reference 2013/2 RCOG Archive

Reference: 2013/2 RCOG Archive

Reference: 2013/2 RCOG Archive

Post Navigation


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.