Heritage collections relating to women's health

Louise Bourgeois’s Observations: the earliest printed work by a midwife

This month our blog features a guest post from Valerie Worth-Stylianou. Valerie is a Senior Tutor at Trinity College and the Mellon-TORCH Knowledge Exchange Fellow at the University of Oxford. This blog post features an in-depth look at one of the RCOG’s early printed books which featured at the recent Knowledge Exchange workshop hosted by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in partnership with The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities and the De Partu History of Childbirth Group.

The Library of the RCOG holds a rare copy of the first edition of the Observations of Louise Bourgeois (1563-1636), midwife to the Queen of France (Marie de’ Medici, 1575-1642).

Portrait of Louise Bourgeois, from 1609 Observations The portrait was engraved in 1608 by Thomas de Leu, a court artist. Her status as royal midwife is indicated by her velvet collar, velvet cap and gold cross. Her age (forty-five) suggests her experience. The four lines of poetry pay a conventional compliment (‘In this perfect portrait, the limits of painting/ Are clearly evident to our eyes today/ Because we see only the representation of the body/ Not the mind that is admired as a masterpiece of creation.)

Portrait of Louise Bourgeois, from 1609 Observations
The portrait was engraved in 1608 by Thomas de Leu, a court artist. Her status as royal midwife is indicated by her velvet collar, velvet cap and gold cross. Her age (forty-five) suggests her experience.
The four lines of poetry pay a conventional compliment (‘In this perfect portrait, the limits of painting/ Are clearly evident to our eyes today/ Because we see only the representation of the body/ Not the mind that is admired as a masterpiece of creation.)

As far as we know, the book, which appeared in Paris in 1609, was the first published work by any midwife. Bourgeois authored two more volumes of Observations, in 1617 and 1626, and in 1635 also published a collection of cures she had used throughout her working life. The Observations were immensely successful, being reprinted regularly in France for some 50 years, and translated into German and Dutch. Extracts were lifted and put into English in the very popular anonymous compilation entitled The Compleat Midwifes Practice (first edition, 1656). When the French-American artist and sculptress also named Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) discovered her namesake, it inspired her to produce several colour plates.

Apart from their place of honour in the Library’s collection as the earliest printed work by a midwife, the Observations give fascinating insights into an early modern midwife’s thoughts and practices. Bourgeois reckoned that in the course of her career she attended over 2,000 deliveries in and around Paris, and her approach – as the title suggests – draws on her personal experience, often using case histories as the means to understand more general principles of diagnosis and treatment. I have selected a few short extracts from the second chapter of the 1609 volume, on the subject of miscarriages and premature births, to show how Bourgeois’ approach is refreshingly personal. The translations into English are mine, and I’ve tried to convey something of Bourgeois’ individual style, suited to a reflective work published in the vernacular rather than a learned medical tome in Latin.

In this first extract, she is very interested in the association between a pregnant woman’s emotional state and her physical wellbeing. In particular, she proposes (echoing many doctors, and the celebrated surgeon Ambroise Paré, 1509-1590) a close correlation between anger and miscarriage. She believes anger disturbs the humoral system of the body, affecting the blood and interrupting the foetus’s development. Because she is writing primarily for student midwives or a readership without medical training, she often draws comparisons with natural or commonplace objects to make her accounts clear and vivid, as here where the products of the miscarriage are ‘formed like a duck’s egg’:

‘The most frequent reason for a woman to give birth [prematurely] is anger, which sometimes occurs while the child is being formed … So I saw a woman who believed she was pregnant and carried her burden for four and a half months, whereupon she suffered pains and delivered a dense membrane, thicker at one end than the other, formed like a duck’s egg, and containing reddish water and many white strands, with three swellings like small grains of crystal, the one higher up being larger than the other two, which were of different sizes. I therefore asked the woman whether, when she thought she might have become pregnant, she has perhaps experienced fear or anger. She told me that she had been extremely angry and troubled just after she had missed her period and had already experienced some changes, such as trembling and nausea. From this I judged that her anger had occurred at this time, according to what Paré notes in his Book on Generation, where he speaks of the three swellings that become the heart, liver and brain.’

The title page of the 1609 text gives a full account of the volume’s subject matter, as well as emphasising that Bourgeois combines theoretical insights and impressive practical experience. English translation of the title page: Diverse Observations on Infertility, Miscarriage, Fertility, Childbirth and Illnesses of Women and of Newborn Infants. Fully discussed and successfully practised by Louise Bourgeois, also called Boursier, midwife to the Queen. A work useful and necessary for everyone. Dedicated to the Queen. Paris, printed by A. Saugrain, rue St Jacques at the sign of the Silver Ship, in front of St Benoît. 1609. With the King’s privilege.

The title page of the 1609 text gives a full account of the volume’s subject matter, as well as emphasising that Bourgeois combines theoretical insights and impressive practical experience.
English translation of the title page:
Diverse Observations on Infertility, Miscarriage, Fertility, Childbirth and Illnesses of Women and of Newborn Infants. Fully discussed and successfully practised by Louise Bourgeois, also called Boursier, midwife to the Queen. A work useful and necessary for everyone. Dedicated to the Queen.
Paris, printed by A. Saugrain, rue St Jacques at the sign of the Silver Ship, in front of St Benoît. 1609.
With the King’s privilege.

In another extract from the same chapter, where she is examining the causes of miscarriage, she relies on her own extensive experience to evaluate the significance of nature versus nurture. Her conclusion that countrywomen’s daily activities prepare the body for pregnancy and birth is similar to much modern thinking: see the RCOG’s statement number 4, January 2006 on ‘Exercise in Pregnancy’:

‘I used to be astonished to see that right up to the day of giving birth, sometimes to twins, countrywomen would lift bundles of hay and carry them on their head, without miscarrying. But when I pondered on the reason why, I realised they have been used to this activity since they were young. So since childhood their ligaments have been stretched when their wombs were empty, and they had become strong through their work. If other countrywomen, who had grown up as children in the town before returning to live in the country, tried to work in the same way, I observed that they soon miscarried, which leads me to conclude that nurture is more important than nature in this regard.’

For those interested in finding out more, I warmly recommend Wendy Perkins’s study: Midwifery and Medicine in Early Modern France: Louise Bourgeois (Exeter: 1996). And an annotated translation into modern English of all three volumes of the Diverse Observations (edited by Alison Klairmont-Lingo and translated by Stephanie O’Hara) is due to be published in 2016 by Iter Inc. & Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, University of Toronto.

Celebrating 500 years of Pregnancy and Birth

Since April this year the library and archives of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has been involved in a Knowledge Exchange Partnership with The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities and the De Partu History of Childbirth Group.

The partnership mines the college’s rich collection of over 2000 books and extensive archive material dating from the 15th century to today and utilises the expertise of a wide range of healthcare professionals and academics. The Partnership aims to widen awareness of the heritage collections at RCOG and those of the Royal College of Midwives; to facilitate dialogue between academic researchers and healthcare practitioners on the history of pregnancy and birth; and to provide a forum for debates on current issues in their historical context.

DSC_0016Guiding out a Breech (1690) from JustineSiegemund’s Die Chur-Brandenburgische Hof-WeheMutter (The Brandenburg Court Midwife)

From the birth experiences of royalty to those of the regular public, guidance on diet and exercise during pregnancy, and the medicalization of delivery, the science and experience of pregnancy and childbirth provides ample opportunity for discussion and exploration. On 4th September these debates and controversies were the subject of a study day and exhibition hosted by the College. The central theme of the day was a look at the past 500 years of innovation in the science and experience of pregnancy and childbirth. Topics covered included material comforts in the birthing room, favoured delivery positions, premature births, breastfeeding, and who used to be present at a birth. The study day was attended by researchers into midwifery, obstetrics and childbirth, qualified and student midwives, and other keen supporters of innovation and research into pregnancy and birth.

Domiciliary midwife at a birthing class

Domiciliary midwife’s class for pregnant mothers (c.1950-1960) from the Royal College of Midwives archive (ref. RCM/PH7/2/2)

The study day and its accompanying exhibition were devised and led by Professor Valerie Worth-Stylianou, Senior Tutor at Trinity College, University of Oxford and Mellon-TORCH Knowledge Exchange Fellow, and Dr Janette Allotey, Chair of De Partu, Honorary Lecturer at the School of Nursing, Midwifery and Social Work at the University of Manchester.


Professor Valerie Worth (left) and Dr Janette Allotey during the opening talk on debates over delivery positions.

The day opened with welcome addresses by Ian Wylie, CEO of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and Louise Silverton, Director of Midwifery at the Royal College of Midwives on the history and role of both colleges in the past 500 years of research and advocacy for women, mothers and children. Professor Worth-Stylianou and Dr Allotey then led a discussion on positions for delivery. Professor Worth shone a light on the midwifery practices of 16th and 17th century Parisians, which included a fascinating account by Louise Bourgeois, scholar and midwife to the French royal family during the reign of King Henry IV and his wife Marie de Medici. Dr Allotey contrasted this historical perspective with a look at modern practices in birth positions and the autonomy of mothers in changing position and moving around during labour.

This was followed by a Keynote talk by David Hutchon, Fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, on the history and practice of cord-clamping across cultures, from the works of Charles White and Erasmus Darwin in the 18th and 19th centuries to modern ethical debates surrounding the use of the placenta and umbilical cord in adult stem cell research.

There were two workshops in the afternoon, one led by Dr Julia Allison, from the University of Nottingham, on maternal comforts in the birthing room in early modern England. This workshop used Parish archival records and Dr Allison’s own artwork to give us a glimpse in the birthing chambers of Elizabethan Britain. The second workshop was delivered by Professor Billie Hunter of the University of Cardiff on the maternal comforts of 20th century birthing rooms, which showcased oral histories recording women’s experiences with childbirth, midwifery services and maternity services before the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948.

The day concluded with a chance to visit a poster display commissioned for the event in the corridor of the College’s Education Centre. The twelve posters capture key moments in development of obstetric and gynaecological practice taken from the College Library’s early printed books and from its archives. The posters are grouped to contrast the differences and similarities between historic and modern approaches to pregnancy and birth. A free accompanying guidebook is available beside the display.


In addition to the poster display there is currently a small exhibition of archive and library material in the College Library including the works of William Smellie and editions of early midwifery textbooks.

The study day was a huge success and discussion on personal and professional experiences of pregnancy and birth continued well into the afternoon. The College would like to thank Professor Worth and Dr Allotey for devising and organising the event, the De Partu History of Childbirth Group for supporting the project, and The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities for funding the seminar and display.


The poster display accompanying the seminar will be up in the corridor leading from the museum display to the education centre at the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology until Christmas 2015

De Partu History of Childbirth Research Group

The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH)

Work Experience in the RCOG Archive!

This week’s post comes from Genevieve, a 6th form student, who spent a week working with the RCOG heritage collection. Below she summarises her experience, the unexpected aspects of her placement, and her recommendations to fellow 6th formers working on their Extended Project Qualification.

I never really knew what to expect when doing work experience here as the college is not well known of people around my age (17 years old). As I am currently working on my EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) and as my question is ‘Have changes in research and technology affect childbirth for the better?’ I soon realised that this was the best place to be to for my research.

For my work experience I was based in the Archive department which was a little daunting as I would be handling heritage items and didn’t want to ruin anything I came into contact with. However when I started, my manager put all my worries to ease; as she slowly introduced me into everything I had to do.

My first task was to use the cataloguing system to find any documents that would be of interest to me and benefit my EPQ. This was a great way to ease myself in as the cataloguing system works just like Google; in the fact that I can type in a key word and any documents containing any information on that will come up. I would then be able to get a description of the document and it reference number so that I would be able to retrieve it if I wanted to. After about twenty minutes of this I had a fairly substantial list, I was then able to go to the special items archive.

This was exciting as to get there I had to descend down a narrow winding staircase which felt like something out of Hogwarts. I was then presented with 10 bookshelves in a constant air conditioned room which contained everything from Obstetrics and Gynaecology Journals from decades back, photographs and original letters from key persons in the development and changes of Obstetrics. I then spent my time looking at all the resources I had chosen and picked out the ones I wanted to reference.

One of the most enjoyable tasks I was given was to go through a box of forceps that had been donated to the college and identify what type of forceps they were. To do this I had to go through museum photographs and compare the forceps I had to the pictures. If they did match the photo I would then write down their reference number and find the forceps in the archives as well as then comparing them by size and any identifiable features. I thought this would be very easy, I WAS WRONG. With my first set of forceps I very quickly identified them and labelled them straight away. However when I had them checked I realised that even if the forceps look the same they are completely different even if it is just done to the size of the screw or the curve of the handle, but this helped me to understand that attention to detail really does matter furthermore by realising this I started noticing all the differences in each set of forceps thus making my archiving more accurate.

Meeting people from different departments in the college was a great experience as they were all able to show me all the different things the college is involved with. I was introduce to a Senior Research Fellow who showed me how the College works with the National Institution for Health and Care Excellence (also known as NICE). The college helps NICE develop guidelines which are used to create quality standards across the country. I also met staff from the Clinical Quality team who shared their wisdom with me on medical school and applying, also tips for medical school interviews. These were very beneficial as in September I will begin applying for universities and if successful I will have to undergo the interview process to be accepted.

The next person I met was engaged in the development and international work of the RCOG; her job is to help develop new projects internationally. Some of these projects such as the ‘every baby counts’ project which entails taking the statistics about the amount of stillbirths, neonatal deaths and brain injuries that occur during labour and bringing these results together to understand the bigger picture also to share the lessons learned.

Overall work experience here was not what I expected as in usual scenarios I would be making tea or filing whereas here I had a hands on experience of what a normal day is like and the privilege of being trusted to work with original documents. I would say that this has been the best work experience I have ever had and recommend it to everyone even if you are not interested in Obstetrics or Gynaecology; learning about the different roles in an establishment and how they all work together to help members and fellows.

This week has been extremely beneficial for my EPQ as working with archives has given me an unlimited amount of information. By having good quality documents it made me realise that my topic for my EPQ was too broad; having the archives helped me realise something so simple that I had been trying to figure out since December. Also by having the archives I had so much information at my finger tips that I didn’t have to use the same source over and over again or the internet as I was never limited in the information I received and it all came from a reliable source.

For any sixth formers doing research in any topic I would suggest that you try and get in contact with the British Library or any college that you think will have information of what you’re researching; they will always have something to offer you and even if they don’t (which is unlikely) there was no harm in asking. Also try and find somewhere that has archives so that your research has some depth and so not all of it will be new unproven work. I suggest you push yourself out of your comfort zone and don’t just rely on the internet because you cannot always trust what you see online.

Genevieve at work in the RCOG Archive

Genevieve Mahbeer

Fantastic Finds for Friday: An extra special Honorary Fellow!

This week’s Fantastic Find is not so much a ‘find’ but rather an exciting and generous donation to the RCOG Archive! The gift came from Ian Harley FRCOG, during his visit to the College from Ireland earlier this week, and came in the form of a tube containing rolled up certificates. On closer examination, these certificates were found to have all been presented to Professor Charles Gibson Lowry, and include a certificate of Honorary Fellowship to the RCOG issued in October 1947. Knowing that C G Lowry had been a Foundation Fellow of the College in 1929, I knew that this must be one of only four Honorary Fellowships issued in 1947 to celebrate the granting of the Royal Charter.

On the 21 March 1947 the College was granted by the King a Royal Charter of Incorporation, thus forming the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. The Annual Report for 1947 states:

‘To mark the indebtedness of the College to its Founders, the Honorary Fellowship was conferred on the four remaining signatories to the Articles of Association under which the College was originally incorporated:- Professor J M Munro Kerr, Professor C G Lowry, Sir Ewen J Maclean, and Sir William Fletcher Shaw’

The Admission Ceremony was held on 3 October and presided over by the College President, Sir William Gilliatt. Professor Lowry was presented by Sir Eardley Holland who described him as a man with ‘imagination, courage and persistence…a famous teacher…a great speaker, a man of eloquence, a grand companion, a generous friend’.

By 1947, Lowry was completing his 25 year career at the Queen’s University, Belfast as emeritus Professor of Midwifery and Gynaecology as well as Consulting Surgeon to the Royal Maternity Hospital and to the Royal Victoria Hospital. He had been a driving force in developing the practice of midwifery in Northern Ireland and had also supported the introduction of modern operative gynaecology, having been influenced by his introduction to Professor Blair Bell in Liverpool during his First World War service with the RAMC. As a Foundation Fellow of the College he had served on the first College Council between 1929 and 1936 and again between 1939 and 1942, and was a member of the Finance and Executive Committee, Examination Committee, and Fellowship Selection Committee as well as Vice-President from 1940 to 1942. Lowry was succeeded to the Belfast Chair by his son-in-law, Charles Macafee, who also served the RCOG well as Councillor and Vice-President, and was followed into the specialty of obstetrics and gynaecology by his son, and Lowry’s grandson, Jeremy Macafee.

The photograph below is one of the earliest ones we have of Lowry on College business, taken in 1933 at the British Congress of Obstetrics and Gynaecology held at Birmingham: Lowry is second from right on the front row.

9th British Congress of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Birmingham, 1933

9th British Congress of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Birmingham, 1933 [copyright of the RCOG]

James Macdougal Graham Harley of Belfast was just one of the medical students who benefitted from Lowry’s teaching. Graham Harley became a Member of the RCOG in 1958, and was elevated to the Fellowship in 1967, serving on College Council between 1978 and 1984 and again from 1987 to 1993. His son, Ian Harley became a Member of the College in 1999, was elevated to the Fellowship in 2013 and is now an active member of the Scientific Advisory Committee and Northern Ireland Executive Committee. Following his father’s death in 2012, Ian Harley came into possession of the certificates which were issued to Professor Lowry, and which apparently were passed to Graham Harley as a token of his friendship with his teacher and mentor prior to Lowry’s death in 1951.

Readers of this blog may remember the First World War photographs of Lowry which came to the Archive via his grandson, Jeremy Macafee last year. I love the fact that both the Harleys and Lowry/Macafees kept obstetrics and gynaecology (and the RCOG) very much in the family and continue to represent the specialty in Northern Ireland!

Fantastic Find for Friday: Honorary Fellowship of ACOG

This week’s Fantastic Find for Friday is in honour of the news that Professor Lesley Regan, Vice-President for Strategic Development at the RCOG has received an Honorary Fellowship from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Professor Regan is not the first among the RCOG‘s Officers to receive such an award, although she is the first female among College representatives! My research has found only one other female from the UK has received this Honorary Fellowship, and that was Gwyneth Lewis in 2010. Sir Hector MacLennan, as RCOG President, received the first Honorary Fellowship issued by ACOG in May 1964, and we look below at another recipient, Sir Norman Jeffcoate, who was President of the RCOG between 1969 and 1972.

In May 1972 Sir Norman Jeffcoate was invited to the Honorary Fellowship of ACOG, and was enthusiastic in his response, despite clearly having a very hectic year! The letters in his presidential file found in the College Archive demonstrate the complexity of arrangements required to accommodate the College President’s role as ambassador overseas, as central figure in the administration of the College in London, as practitioner, and often as a father with a busy home-life. Josephine, the wife of Sir Norman, obviously had to be firm about not allowing herself to be dragged to Chicago after having spent a month in South Africa with her husband. Sir Norman’s response to receiving the Honorary Fellowship was full of enthusiasm, and on reaching home after his whistle-stop visit to Chicago, he wrote:

‘I am still overwhelmed by receiving the great honour of honorary fellowship of the American College and I hope you will convey to all those concerned my deep gratitude. I will always do my best to help the American College in every way that I can.’

There is much discussion in this correspondence file about the formation of a group of RCOG Members and Fellows residing in the US, as well as evidence of the good relations between Sir Norman and Clyde Randall, President of ACOG and RCOG Fellow ad Eundem. Indeed, the good standing of professional connections between obstetricians and gynaecologists in the UK and the US dates back way beyond 1951, the date of the foundation of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Founder of the RCOG, Professor William Blair-Bell, took a trip to Philadelphia in 1925 at the invitation of his US counterparts, and there is much evidence of frequent communications between the two countries on shared issues. Sir Norman himself visited the US in 1952 with Josephine, and there are some wonderful mementoes in the form of scrapbooks, postcards and photographs of this visit held in the papers of Sir Norman Jeffcoate which can be found in the RCOG Archive. All of this give me an excuse to include this wonderful of photograph of Norman Jeffcoate with Josephine, taken in 1956 and found among his personal papers at the RCOG.

Norman and Josephine Jeffcoate, 1956 (RCOG, S28)

Norman and Josephine Jeffcoate, 1956 (RCOG, S28)


Fantastic Finds for Friday: VE Day

Seventy years ago today, Great Britain and its Dominions (later the Commonwealth) celebrated the end of the war in Europe with jubilation and expressions of joy. At the RCOG’s headquarters in Queen Anne Street, London, the College held its 17th Annual General Meeting on 26 May 1945 – barely two weeks after VE Day, however little mention was made of the celebrations, and virtually nothing can be found in the College Archive relating to widespread relief or feelings on the cessation of hostilities. This is interesting knowing that College business was certainly affected by the Second World War: there is evidence in letters of the Blitz and later doodlebugs, College valuables were shipped off to the countryside, and thoughts on demobilisation were being discussed during the late summer months of 1944.

It was noted in the AGM that College Council had been busier than ever ‘to keep pace with the increased activities of the College’ (the White Paper on a National Health Service, and a report on Maternity Services being just two of the issues), and the only nod to wartime activity comes in the following paragraph:

‘…a warm tribute to members of the Council, Standing Committees and Special Committees, for the generous and self-sacrificing way they have worked for the College. I want the body of members to try and realize to the full what this meant. Long railway journeys last year were always difficult and uncomfortable; trains were unpunctual and arrived hours overdue, often there was only standing room, seldom was there heating, and never a restaurant car. Such journeys must sometimes have been a nightmare. But Councillors and Committee-men were not deterred. The way in which our distant colleagues have sustained, by regular attendance, the work and life of the College has been an example to those of us who live in London, and it is one that we can never forget. We had, of course to do without our Irish colleagues, but it was only the travel restrictions that kept them away.’

While to us today this seems like a description of our everyday commute into London, this was evidently a sign of hard times felt by 1940s consultants!

The 1945 Annual Report pays tribute to several of Fellows who died during the year, two of whom were actively engaged on war work right up to the time of their death: Frances Ivens Knowles, a Foundation Fellow who had been conspicuous for her service with the Scottish Women’s Hospital during the First World War, was acting as a medical inspector for the Red Cross in Cornwall, as well as an organizer of liaison officers looking after the welfare of soldiers and their relatives, and Gordon William Fitzgerald, another Foundation Fellow who left military service following the First World War with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corps, was in command of the Didsbury Military Hospital during the Second World War.

Correspondence in the files of the RCOG’s External Affairs Committee include complaints about how Members and Fellows of the College felt ‘completely lost in the matter’ of demobilisation and ‘uneasy about the future’. Alistair Gunn (1903-1970), later Honorary Librarian for the College, wrote to President, Sir Eardley Holland, ‘in the Navy, serving Gynaecologists have not been employed as such. Most of us have been working as surgical specialists…I am quite appalled by the prospect of any prolongation of this 5 years divorce from Obstetrics and Gynaecology…’ He went on to say that ‘It is a source of great anxiety to me to contemplate the disastrous effect which any prolongation of the 5 dead years in my professional life may have on what special knowledge and skill I have so laboriously acquired.’

Alistair Gunn FRCOG

Alistair Gunn FRCOG

Gunn was one of the lucky ones, and managed to achieve his full potential, serving the College and his profession well. Others, whose training had been interrupted by the War, were not so lucky and faced great obstacles in obtaining roles which might support them and their families following demobilisation.

RCOG Heritage: International Day of the Midwife, 2015

Today is International Day of the Midwife, a day which was initiated by the International Confederation of Midwives twenty-four years ago to recognise and raise the profile of the knowledge and skills of midwives across the world.

The idea of an international union of midwives was established and developed in Belgium in 1922, and led to the formation of the International Confederation of Midwives (ICM) in 1954. The first International Day of the Midwife was held in May 1991 following an international agreement made in Japan in 1990 between the ICM, the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Children’s Fund for a plan of ‘Action for Safe Motherhood’, calling for international support to alleviate midwife shortages.

Readers of this blog will know how I love to discover new things in the RCOG and RCM Archive, so you can guess how happy I was to find an order of service for the religious service held at Westminster Abbey to celebrate the first International Day of the Midwife in 1991. The service was arranged by the RCM, which has had a strong association with the ICM throughout the years, and was attended by the College’s patron, the late Queen Mother. During the service, a procession moved down the Abbey carrying objects representative of gifts being sent by the RCM to Sierra Leone and Kazakhstan as part of the Action for Safe Motherhood initiative. These included a model Landrover, books, teaching models, and a purse to represent contributions to the appeal fund from RCM branches. The objects were carried by midwives from across the country.

The order of service is reproduced below, together with the statement of intent read at the service by Joan Walker, Secretary of the ICM. I searched in vain for some photographs of the service, particular after finding a tantalising letter written by Ruth Ashton, RCM General Secretary at the time, to Virginia Bottomley, who was Secretary of Health in 1991, in which she mentions sending her photographs of the service to remember the day by! Sadly the RCM photograph collection does not have any copies of these photographs, but I did find some wonderful images taken of other occasions, and I hope to share these on another day!

Order of Service, International Day of the Midwife (reference RCMS/24)

Order of Service, International Day of the Midwife (reference RCMS/24)



Statement of Intent, International Day of the Midwife, 1991


Meanwhile, to all our midwives, happy International Day of the Midwife!


Fantastic Finds for Friday: Chinese Tradition of Third Day Bathing Ceremony, 1911

This week our Fantastic Find for Friday comes as a result of a tidy-up session! Last summer, following office refurbishments here at the RCOG, some interesting photographs and prints were transferred to the Archive, complete with their frames and quite a lot of dust from years of being hung on office walls and in corridors. A lovely and willing work experience student removed the items from the frames and placed them all in clean secol sleeves, putting them in a nice safe place ready for me to catalogue. Fast forward six months, and that nice neat pile finally beckoned!

Chinese silk painting depicting the Third Day Bathing Ceremony

Chinese silk painting depicting the Third Day Bathing Ceremony

This lovely pen and ink drawing on silk was one of these pictures which had adorned the College walls here for many years. Dated 1911, it depicts the third day bathing ceremony celebrated in China: rich Chinese families, celebrating the birth of a child, would invite the midwife to wash the baby on the third day after the birth. The family, relatives and friends would come to congratulate and watch the washing of the baby. The delicate and vivid colours of the painting prove that this picture certainly has not suffered from being exhibited for all these years, and we will continue to preserve it in the College Archive (Reference S130), hopefully bringing it to the notice of many more people – it is surprising how little we see the things that we pass by every day!

Just as interesting as the picture, is the person who gave it to the College! It was presented to the RCOG in November 1954, six years before the College moved to its present site in Regents’ Park, by Foundation Fellow, Professor John Preston Maxwell. John Preston Maxwell was born on 5 December 1871 in Birmingham, where his father, Dr James Laidlaw Maxwell, practiced medicine. He attended University College School, Hampstead and University College London, before taking his clinical training at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, from which he emerged with a gold medal in obstetrics and went on to work as a resident at St Bartholomew’s. Then, following his devout Presbyterian faith, Maxwell became a Medical missionary for the English Presbyterian Church and, in about 1898, went to Yungchun Hospital at Fujian in China, where he spent the majority of his professional life. He specialised in obstetrics and was a leading authority on foetal osteomalacia. He became a Director of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the Peking Union Medical College (a teaching hospital funded by the Rockerfeller Foundation), President of the Chinese Society of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and worked as secretary to the medical committee of the Lord Mayor’s Fund for the Relief of Distress in China.

We are privileged to hold in the RCOG Archive Professor Maxwell’s photograph albums of cases of osteomalacia encountered in China, with a collection of bound related articles from medical journals, 1830-1947 (Reference S64). These were presented to the College at the same time as the Chinese drawing. A unique man and a wonderful collection for the RCOG to have in its custody.


Fantastic Finds for Friday: Exciting new collections for the RCOG!!

It isn’t often that we receive new collections for the RCOG heritage collections, so you can imagine how excited I am to bring you news of two new and interesting additions to the unique collections held here in Sussex Place! The first is a collection of obstetric and gynaecological instruments which were used in the practise of RCOG Fellow, John Ritchie. John Matheson Ritchie became a Member of the RCOG in 1964, after training at the Middlesex Hospital, and was elevated to the Fellowship in 1977. Ritchie would have been one of the first to take the new style MRCOG exam, which asked for additional training and a third examination paper, and his training would have taken place against a background of concern for the shortage of maternity beds and staffing structures, and changing legislation on medicines.

Obstetric forcep, Ritchie collection

Obstetric forcep, Ritchie collection

The instruments have been stored for many years in a garden shed, so are in varying degrees of decay and we will need to review and assess the collection against the other items currently held by the College. The significance of this donation is that we do not often know anything about the background to our museum objects – who used these things, when, where – all those interesting snippets of information which really intrigue and help to create a sense of history and place. Potentially we may be able to gather more details about Ritchie from his son, the donor, and also from records held in the College Archive relating to his membership of the RCOG, and so begin to build a story around the collection.

The second accession was brought to my notice originally by the manager of the online Oxfam store up in Edinburgh! A rather unusual donation to the charity in the form of a 150 original pencil and pen and ink gynaecological drawings is probably not something you find every day on the Oxfam Online Shopping site! We were informed about this and given the opportunity to have first bid before the items went on sale. The College was fortunate to be successful in this bid, and now has in its possession the original drawings commissioned by London-based obstetrician and gynaecologist, Wilfred Shaw, for the 1954 edition of his respected Text Book of Gynaecology. Most of the drawings are by artist, Leslie Caswell, better known for his work for popular magazines during the 1950s and 1960s, and a few are by the Austrian medical illustrator, Erich Lepier, whose work Shaw was familiar with from his studies in the Continent. Wilfred Shaw was a Foundation Member of the RCOG and received his medical training at St Bartholomew’s Hospital with a Shuter scholarship, continuing to win prizes and scholarships throughout his training. After qualifying, he received postgraduate experience in obstetrics in Dublin and in gynaecology in Vienna, and between 1926 and 1931 held the post of resident assistant physician accoucheur to St Bart’s, rising to surgeon in charge of the obstetric and gynaecological department in 1946. He also held consultant appointments at St Andrew’s, Dollis Hill and Brentwood Hospitals. Shaw is said to have been at his happiest when teaching, but he was also involved in pioneer work on dysfunctional uterine haemorrhage and ovarian tumours, and is also said to have been a pioneer in vaginal hysterectomy at a time when this operation was not largely performed by British gynaecologists. He completed his textbook of operative gynaecology shortly before his death at the age of 55, and it has seen countless editions since that date. He was elevated to the Fellowship of the College in 1932, and served on both the Museum Committee and Pathology Committee of the RCOG during the difficult war years.

Illustration for Shaw's Textbook of Gynaecology drawn by Leslie Caswell

Illustration for Shaw’s Textbook of Gynaecology drawn by Leslie Caswell


Illustration for Shaw’s Textbook of Gynaecology drawn by Leslie Caswell

Digital scans of a selection of the drawings have been matched to the plates in the 1954 edition of the textbook, and cover vaginal hysterectomy, copoperineorrhapy operation, myomectomy, abdominal hysterectomy, ovariotomy, and operation for prolapse. Such a collection certainly adds to the RCOG’s heritage assets: as well as being a direct produce of the work of a respected and important London gynaecologist, it complements the editions of the textbook held in the RCOG Library collection, as well as unpublished correspondence between Wilfred Shaw and College co-founder, Sir William Fletcher Shaw relating to the foundation of the College and it’s early administrative difficulties. I am looking forward to finding ways in which I can use this wonderful collection!

Fab Find for Friday: Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month

Forget about the month of March being dedicated to the Roman God, Mars, who was the god of agriculture and warfare – it is undoubtedly the month for women worldwide! The list of dates observed during March include International Women’s Day and Mother’s Day, as well as Women’s History Day, and the whole month is dedicated to raising awareness of ovarian cancer.

The RCOG has been involved in research and management of ovarian cancer for over 80 years, and College co-founder, Professor William Blair-Bell conducted extensive research between 1911 and 1913 during his practice, both privately in Wallasey, Cheshire, and as assistant consulting gynaecologist to Liverpool Infirmary. A note book exists among his papers entitled ‘Chemical composition of the fluid contents of ovarian cysts’, providing anonymised patient data on surgery conducted for ovarian cysts and the pathology of the cysts. Blair-Bell returned to this early research in the 1930s, having by this time gained the chair in midwifery and gynaecology at Liverpool University and the presidency of the new College of obstetrics and gynaecology. This time he had the assistance of his protégé, Morris Datnow, who was very active in cancer research, and it was with Datnow that Blair-Bell produced a paper on ovarian ‘neoplasms’, looking at the pathology of ovarian tumours and making recommendations for management and treatment:

‘Radium has no place in the treatment of this disease, and in our experience x-ray treatment does more harm than good. With lead therapy we… have had much encouragement…’

Morris Datnow relaxing with his mentor, Professor William Blair-Bell, c.1920

Morris Datnow relaxing with his mentor, Professor William Blair-Bell, c.1920

Blair-Bell wasn’t the only Fellow of the RCOG making ovarian cancer his subject of research: one of the most important pieces of work published by Victor Bonney, the esteemed London gynaecologist who based his refusal to join the new college on a disdain for medical specialism, was his Technical Minutiae of extended Myomectomy and Ovarian Cystectomy, published in 1946 and accompanied by 242 line drawings by the author (copies of which are available in the RCOG Library).

Victor Bonney, 1922

Victor Bonney, 1922

In 1980, Professor C Hudson gave the Victor Bonney Prize Lecture at the RCOG, and made the statement that ‘Improved understanding of ovarian tumours has been incorporated in the internationally recognised WHO classification. This has played a part in some spectacular advances in the treatment of certain rare types of ovarian tumour.’ More than anything he stressed the need for a multidisciplinary approach to the management of ovarian cancer, headed by the gynaecologist.

Specialists in gynaecological oncology, however, seem to have been few and far between: in 1990 there were 18 UK consultant subspecialists in gynaecological oncology, and 27 consultants with a special interest. Initiatives brought to the RCOG to review clinical practice against guidelines were greeted with enthusiasm by the College, who were committed to supporting better research to improve clinical guidelines, as evidenced by study groups, scientific advisory meetings, and research fellowships dedicated to the study. Between 2008 and 2015 the College Scientific Advisory Committee has produced opinion papers on many different aspects of ovarian cancer, proving that this is still an issue of great concern to those who have the ability to make a difference to women’s lives.

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