Blair-Bell 13: A man of different hats….

As I draw to the end of this phase in the cataloguing project, I begin to understand just how this collection of papers of Professor William Blair-Bell provides a wonderful story of him as a medic and a man during the 1920s and 1930s. The same themes recur over the three series of papers (S1, S10, S14), revealing not just that this is a collection which has been broken up over the years and brought together again under the auspices of the RCOG, but expanding the knowledge we have about a doctor of Professor Blair-Bell’s standing at this point in British history.

The latest cataloguing efforts have uncovered a large proportion of papers relating to Blair-Bell’s cancer work – requests for treatment and supplies of the lead preparation from medics and patients, notes on patient cases and treatment, agreements about research and even suggestions from members of the public on cancer cures – a gentleman in New York affirming that ‘There is a cure from cancer and astronomical science if properly applied will reveal it.’ (March 1929, file S10/55) The inclusion of research papers and reprints remind us that Blair-Bell’s study was extensive and not only restricted to the Liverpool Medical Research Organisation or to the UK, and are a very good insight into the research methodology employed.

Blair-Bell’s heavy involvement with the organisation of the British Congress of Obstetrics and Gynaecology held in Glasgow in 1931 as Congress President is a substantial sign of his recent prominence as the face of the new College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. He fought as hard for the proceedings of the congress to be included in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology as he did for the establishment of the College, and he formidably won his battles despite discord with many of the medics who were also influential in the fortunes of the College. The rebellion of the North of England Obstetrical Society in the matter of collecting data for a survey on puerperal fever was wholeheartedly supported by Blair-Bell (file S10/59 – S10/60), although the wisdom of conducting a survey on a regional basis is not argued effectively among these papers!

The administrative papers of two institutions are included in this part of the collection; the reports and accounts of the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology of the British Empire, and the proceedings of the Council of Rossall School, Cheshire, of which Blair-Bell was a member as an ex-pupil. These links were not very evident prior to this recataloguing project, and much of the content has now been highlighted with better record descriptions and the inclusion of person and keyword search terms.

As ever, I like to leave on a note of humour and interest, and in this blog we have both! Folder 72 in the series contains correspondence of Blair-Bell with the Roumanian consul concerning his receipt of the decoration of the Order of the Star of Roumania in 1930, including discussion about applying to the King for permission to wear the insignia. The eventual reply received from the Foreign Office and the embassy obviously did not meet Blair-Bell’s approval – the list of restrictions meant that he could only wear it if he was to meet a Roumanian dignitary! The Order of the Star of Roumania  is Roumania’s highest civil order, and is awarded to Roumanian civilians and military personnel, military units and foreign citizens for  (1) Exceptional civil and military services to the Romanian State and the Romanian people; (2) For special acts in time of peace or for heroic acts in time of war; (3) For contributing to the development of the friendship relations with Romania, or for other exceptional services to the Romanian State and the Romanian People. It is not quite clear what Blair-Bell received his award for, but we can imagine that it probably was linked to his cancer work or presidency of the College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.

On a lighter note, it is wonderful to see the glimpses of professional camaraderie which peep through the personal correspondence – the testimonials for past students who then went on to greater things (such as the presidency of the College!), the applications for advice about treatments and research work, and the invitations and arrangements for social functions. The Gynaecological Visiting Society, whose records are held in the Archive of the RCOG (S26), had been a forum for networking and sharing knowledge among the British gynaecologists since 1911, and the meetings were often riotous, washed down with good food and wine and plenty of humour. So 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!’ (S10/61) I feel that Blair-Bell’s true colours come to the fore in the words written to accompany his request for a dinner ticket for the British Congress – while he was happy to be sharing the company of this good friend Comyns Berkeley, he was very certain about his other company – ‘If you are placing people at the Dinner, don’t put me anywhere near any of the women, if you can avoid it.’ Whether this was because of misogynist reasons, or fear of being too much of a catch for the ladies, I will let you decide!

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