Blair-Bell 14: The Datnow Papers

Regular visitors to this blog may remember that it all started with the co-founder of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Professor William Blair-Bell, and the extensive project to catalogue his personal and professional papers held in the College Archive. The impetus to this project back in January 2012 was the recent acquisition of papers from the family of Morris Datnow, a student, colleague and friend of Blair-Bell’s, from which source some of the Blair-Bell papers had originally made their way to the Archive some years ago. So with a good knowledge of the papers already held here in the College relating to Blair-Bell, it is time to turn to Datnow’s papers, and see how they correspond and complement in content and context.
Morris Myer Datnow was born in South Africa in October 1901, and came to England to complete his medical training, graduating from Liverpool University in 1924. Datnow soon acquired an interest in obstetrics and gynaecology, and joined the University staff in 1925, serving as Ethel Boyce research fellow, Samuels memorial scholar, demonstrator and sub-curator of the museum, and lecturer in clinical obstetrics and gynaecology. As one of the team conducting research into cancer and its treatment by chemotherapy under the Liverpool Medical Research Association, Datnow became closely associated with Blair-Bell, and continued the work in the use of colloidal lead as a cancer treatment after Blair-Bell’s death.
Datnow built up a large private practice, as well as having appointments on the staffs of the Women’s Hospital, Liverpool, the Liverpool Maternity Hospital, and the Royal Southern Hospital. He is described as ‘a man of tremendous industry, intimate kindness and skill’ with ‘a particular interest in both students and patients’. A Foundation Member of the British College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in 1929, Datnow was elected to Fellowship in 1939, and was also a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons (Edinburgh). Despite this, he had no interest in committees or medical politics, and devoted himself to his work on genital cancer and his interest in books and libraries. Together with his other main interest in farming, he was professionally active until his sudden death in June 1962 at the age of 61.
Datnow’s close association with his teacher, Blair-Bell led to a deep mutual affection between them, and Datnow took over Blair-Bell’s consulting rooms in Rodney Street in 1936. It is in these rooms that many of these papers relating to Blair-Bell were found, split up over the years, passed into different hands or laid up in dusty cupboards. The recent Datnow acquisition by the College consists of paper folders of correspondence, papers, and photographs, and I suspect that there will be a mixture of material relating to both Datnow and Blair-Bell. Now comes the exciting task of sorting it all out!
So with the New Year came the next part of the Blair-Bell cataloguing project – the sorting, listing, arrangement and cataloguing of the Morris Datnow papers. Two boxes into the project confirms that the papers seem to be a continuation of the mix of personal and professional papers which I found in the Blair-Bell papers already held in the Archive. Among correspondence from doctors referring patients to Blair-Bell for obstetric and gynaecological treatments, testimonials for colleagues taking up positions in other medical institutions, and other professional papers, I found some indications of Blair-Bell’s personal qualities. A sheaf of invoices and recipes for jewellery, gloves, handbags, sweets and toys appears to reveal the extent of Blair-Bell’s Christmas shopping for 1929! An invitation to speak at the Royal Institute of Public Health as part of an Autumnal course of lectures dealing with ‘The Health of the Nation’ seemed to leave Blair-Bell at a loss: scheduled to speak in November 1927, he admitted in September that ‘I have not yet begun to think about my Lecture, I have had so much to do.’ The Lecture itself, being open to members of the public and the press, seems to have unnerved the Professor, as he afterwards wrote ‘I did not feel that the lecture was very satisfactory, but I am not at present accustomed to speaking to a lay audience, and I felt rather like a fish out of water.’

Caricature of Blair-Bell
Instantly recognisable caricature of Blair-Bell found among the Datnow papers.

I also came across an amusing exchange of letters between Blair-Bell and his clinical lecturer, Herbert Leith Murray, who in May 1924 asked his ‘boss’ the question ‘Is it really my duty to be an examiner in June?…The whole thing is a beastly nuisance, it takes up a lot of time, and is most unremunerative…’ He received a prompt and rather curt reply from Blair-Bell telling him that ‘I hardly think this is the right attitude to adopt’ and that examining was ‘one of the duties inflicted upon us as members of the University staff’. Having been told that it was hoped he would offer hospitality to Comyns Berkeley, one of the other examiners not from Liverpool, Leith Murray good naturedly agreed to playing his part, although he couldn’t quite agree that Berkeley shared his dislike of examining!
A rather unexpected and poignant note was found within these papers, relating to Blair-Bell’s wife, Florence, of whom we know very little. In August 1929 Alfred Gough, a fellow obstetrician and gynaecologist from Leeds, received from Blair-Bell’s secretary a note in reply to his request for a testimonial from the President, reading:
‘I am sorry to say that Mrs Bell died last week, and as the Professor is very overwrought we are not giving him any correspondence at present. He is going abroad for the next two or three weeks, and I shall be glad to know if your letter can stand over until his return.’
Seen in the context of the busy professional obstetrician and gynaecologist who was at that time embroiled in the business of establishing a medical college (the British College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists finally succeeded in getting its Memorandum of Association passed by the Board of Trade in September 1929), this does indeed paint a rather different picture of the Professor.

Penny Hutchins, RCOG Archivist

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Edward Datnow says:

    Naturally I read this with great interest and and am delighted such good progress is being made with cataloging my fathers papers. I much appreciate the labours of all involved.

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