RCOG Heritage 2: Volunteering with William Smellie and Robert Barnes….

The Heritage team have been fortunate to have had the assistance of a couple of volunteers since the beginning of September, which has meant progress in a number of preservation and cataloguing tasks. Katie Truax is a history of medicine student from Edinburgh University, with a strong interest in women’s health, and has written about some of her experiences as a volunteer at the RCOG below:

The Library of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists is an amazing place, as I had the chance to discover when putting together the exhibit now on display at the College home in Regent’s Park.  While researching for a suitable display topic, I began to read about the history of forceps, from the early tools that were not designed to save babies to the Chamberlen family in the 17th century who kept their life-saving tools secret to protect their business.  The full, dramatic tale of the family forceps can be read here.  The forceps disappeared after the death of Peter Chamberlen in 1683, only to be discovered beneath the floorboards of his house in 1813, and they now rest in a display on the first floor here at the RCOG.

Equally fascinating was the next chapter in the history of forceps, which became the subject of the library exhibit: the life and work of William Smellie, an 18th century Scottish obstetrician who became known as the ‘Father of British Midwifery’.  After trying a model of forceps that were inadequate, he set about designing his own tools, many of which are here in the RCOG Museum collection.  The five sets of forceps that went into the display represent different constructions and techniques of delivery that can be read about in the captions.  Smellie created the wooden pair, for instance, to eliminate the metal clinking noise that caused distress to delivering mothers, heralding the likely death of the child during a difficult birth.

Among many other obstetrical innovations (as you go through the display, you can try to count how many ‘firsts’ belong to Smellie!), he was equally important as a teacher.  After practicing for nineteen years in Scotland, he came to London and then Paris to find instruction in forceps techniques only to discover that it was he who was the expert.  He uprooted and moved to London to begin teaching and even designed full-size pelvic models to demonstrate proper delivery techniques.  The fruits of all his labours and extensive knowledge went into the publication of his beautiful books, also seen in the display with his forceps, including Smellie’s description of attending a birth.

In the other half of the display, more 18th century books are on display.  These are entirely dedicated to criticisms of Smellie by other doctors and a prominent midwife, and among the many illustrations of tools used during difficult births, Smellie’s life-saving forceps are conspicuous by their absence.  Smellie was neither rich nor well-connected, but it is likely that jealousy of his thriving teaching career was behind the attacks on his medical practice.  Also shown are quotes of praise from Smellie’s contemporaries and from later prominent obstetricians recognizing his contributions.

The remainder of the case uses images and articles from among the personal papers of Professor Miles Harris Phillips who conducted his own research into Smellie’s life and was involved with the preservation of his tomb and library in Lanark, Scotland.  Professor Phillips was a fellow of the RCOG, an obstetrician, and a historian of medicine, and his large collection of personal papers relating to his interest in medical history are held in the RCOG Archive.  He believed that the work of William Smellie was relevant to modern obstetricians, and he praised the dedication of Smellie and his ability to clear the cobwebs of ill-informed tradition and persevere through adversity. 

I hope the whole display demonstrates the wealth of heritage material available here at the RCOG and their value in examining past

Another part of my work has been cataloguing the notebooks of Robert Barnes, a nineteenth-century obstetrician from London who worked at St. George’s Hospital and St. Thomas’ Hospital, eventually becoming a leader in his field.  More of his biography can be read here .  In the notebooks I have examined so far, Barnes has displayed impressive thoroughness in his medical research.  Each notebook deals with a different topic, such as peuperal fever, the placenta, or use of the forceps, and contains extensive notes on the ideas of his predecessors and contemporaries, journal articles, newspaper clippings, drawings, letters, case notes, and his own thoughts and conclusions.  The best part about cataloguing, besides knowing that other researchers will be aided by the more detailed descriptions I try to provide, is finding the seemingly random objects tucked between the pages.  One such object was a detailed description of the contents of his obstetrical bag.  Another was the fancy invitation to a dinner, on the back of which he had glued a detailed drawing of the uterus!

I look forward to working my way through cataloguing all of Barnes’ notebooks and learning more about the man as well as medicine in nineteenth-century London.  The potential for discovery at the RCOG Library is endless!

Katie Truax, RCOG Heritage Volunteer


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