Blair-Bell 8: Wills and Wartime!

Having turned my back on the dirt and disarray of the uncatalogued section of the first phase of the Blair-Bell project, I began the next phase of the project by looking at the small series of letters and papers relating to Professor Blair-Bell which had come from diverse sources. Not as exciting, but still some treasures to be found! These collections had already been catalogued to good professional standards by volunteers within the heritage team over the past year or so, and this is a good opportunity to look at them and see how they relate to each other.

Series S14, which I gave the moniker ‘The Shoop Collection’, was deposited at the RCOG by Mr Stanley Shoop between 1989 and 1997. Mr Shoop was a collector of medical ephemera, and his collection of Blair-Bell papers were bought by him at auction in 1986, around the same time that the RCOG was buying the papers now at reference S1. From the four folders of personal correspondence of Professor Blair-Bell, dating between 1920 and 1931, a highlight is the letter from stonemasons, Gregson & Co. relating to Blair-Bell’s churchyard memorial to his mother and brother. Rather mundane administrative correspondence, some may say. Then we look carefully at the letter, and note that Edwin Augustine Bell was killed in action in France on 14 July 1916. Nothing in Blair-Bell’s biographies that I have seen mention this brother who had died during the First World War, and this information adds extra dimension to our observations of Blair-Bell as a person rather than a mere figurehead of the College. Of course, I couldn’t stop there – next step in the investigation was the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, where a search can be made of names recorded on memorials and in graveyards run by the CWGC. I came across an Edward Augustine Bell, Captain of the Royal Army Medical Corps, who was buried at Wimereux and had died on 11 July 1916. Knowing that a younger brother of Blair-Bell was a doctor in Wallasey, and that the other two brothers were accounted for, this Captain Bell seems likely to be the correct brother, despite the slight discrepancy in name and date of death. Wimereux, a small town north of Boulogne, was the headquarters of the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps during the First World War, and the town also hosted an important hospital centre for Allied troops. Nothing has been written about Blair-Bell’s activities during the First World War, and exemptions from the Military Service Acts of 1916 only covered those undertaking work essential for the war effort, those deemed medically unfit, and those with a ‘conscientious objection’ to taking up arms: which of these catagories did Blair-Bell fall into? An issue for later investigation I feel…..

Below is a letter also from S14, which is from future President of the RCOG, Ewen Maclean, thanking Blair-Bell for providing a testimony (or reference) for him in 1921. On the bottom is scribbled in pencil a note informing him that ‘Mr BB’ was taken seriously ill and operated upon the same evening….

Archive Reference: S14/4

Back to the papers, and the letter at reference S18 was donated to the RCOG by Fellow, A H Rowson in 1990. It is a letter from the Cunard Steam Ship Company to Blair-Bell confirming his passage to New York aboard the SS ‘Berengaria’ in October 1925 – Blair-Bell’s great US trip during which he established life-long contacts and support for the College founded four years later.  Much could be said about the Berengia’s history as the largest ship in the world between 1912 and 1914, and how it too served during the First World War, transporting American service personnel home from France before joining Cunard to become the pride of its fleet and frequent voyager between Liverpool and New York – but that would be a major distraction! Reference S20 contains a copy of the will of Professor Blair-Bell, obtained by the College in 1990 from the Principal Registry of the Family Division, at a time when the College were presumably settling some administrative aspects of the many bequests and legacies of its co-founder. I will not go into the details of the will here, but I will point out two aspects which I found interesting and quite startling. One was Blair-Bell’s disapproval of the tax and probate system, openly revealed by him as he used a loophole to give gifts of money to his housekeeper and surgical nurse, Mary Nockolds, in order to ‘save death duties’! The other was his direction that all his private diaries should be destroyed within six months of his death by his nephew, Arthur Capel Bell, who was allowed to ‘examine them to extract anything of scientific or historical importance, without allowing any other to see them’. What a shame!

And then we have Blair-Bell’s unpublished history of the RCOG, grandly titled ‘The History of the Origin and Rise of the British College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’. This seems to have been a project which Blair-Bell threw himself into following his resignation from all committees of the College in April 1934, and is mentioned in his will, dated March 1935. Specific instructions were left by Blair-Bell regarding this history: it was to be kept sealed and unread in a bank until its publication ‘not sooner than fifteen years after my death and not until after the death of the last surviving member of the Finance and Executive committees …between 1929 and 1934’. A thousand copies were to be printed and distributed to various institutions and individuals, and every Fellow and Member of the College, and no alteration to the text was to be made in any way. The manuscript history was finally deposited at the College by Sir Arthur Bell in November 1969, with terms of access agreed (permission for access to be granted by the President of the RCOG) and a decision made by Council to bind the typescript, make a copy, and preserve both in the College Archive. Knowing that Professor Blair-Bell was as famous for being disliked as for being revered, the stringent terms of the will seem to have been put into place to protect him from the wrath of those whom he had written about in none too friendly terms!

The last of these small series of papers relating to Professor Blair-Bell are the papers of Morris Myer Datnow at reference S21, deposited on permanent loan by the Morris Datnow Trust in 1990. Morris Datnow was a Foundation Member of the British College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in 1929, and worked closely with Blair-Bell in Liverpool, later taking over his consulting rooms in Rodney Street, Liverpool. Having completed his medical training in Liverpool, Datnow became a member of the Liverpool university staff in 1925, and served successively as Ethel Boyce research fellow, Samuels memorial scholar, demonstrator and sub-curator of the museum and lecturer in clinical obstetrics and gynaecology. He was appointed to the staff of the Women’s Hospital, Liverpool, the Liverpool Maternity Hospital and the Royal Southern Hospital. Morris Datnow became closely associated with William Blair-Bell in the research work which was going on at that time in the department, and was one of the team undertaking basic research into the nature of cancer and the place of chemotherapy in its treatment.  He was to become a close friend of Blair-Bell’s and was elected to deliver the third Blair-Bell Memorial Lecture in 1940 at the RCOG. The small collection of papers at this reference covers Datnow’s association with the College between 1929 and 1946, and essentially serves to ‘fill in the gaps’ of the College’s own administrative papers. So we find copies of the President’s newsletter, which have not survived among the College’s own papers; similarly, a memorandum issued on a National Maternity Service in 1936, a diploma prospectus and regulations from 1933, and a report on consultants made by the Liverpool Reference Committee in 1937 – all items which combine to deliver a full picture of healthcare for women and training for consultants during the 1930s.

Next phase is to properly catalogue the papers directly relating to Professor Blair-Bell on permanent loan by the Datnow family. The overview of the small collections above has shown such a varied picture of Blair-Bell, and I am expecting that the next part of the project will continue to uncover unexpected treats and points of interest!

Penny Hutchins


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