We are fortunate enough to have two lovely ladies volunteering for the RCOG Heritage Collection, Chloe who is a student on the UCL Museum Studies course, and Gemma who is hoping to gain a place at UCL on the Archives Management course. I set them both the task to create a display for the redundant antique bookcase currently situated in the reception of the RCOG. Gemma writes below about the results of this challenge, and her perspective of being an RCOG volunteer.
After rummaging around in the Museum Store at the RCOG, Chloe and I found a variety of items which interested us as possible exhibits for the display case outside the old bookshop. On investigating the use and history of these items, we found that they told a story of innovation and supersession.
The oldest items in this display are a pair of forceps dated 1740-1763 designed by Dr Middleton Walker, one of the Chamberlen family, which were used to aid difficult deliveries. The use of forceps reduced and eventually removed the need for the destructive instruments which had previously been used to remove the foetus piecemeal in cases of protracted labour. Also displayed is a set of Smellie forceps dated 1748-1751. These improved on the older designs by curving the tips to describe the pelvic curve. I found copies of 18th century letters in the Archive from William Smellie to a student, describing the use of his forceps with diagrams, in the archive, duplicates of which I added to the display. Forceps are still used today, although ventouse caps are also used to assist delivery.
An interesting discovery was the Rubin’s Tubal Insufflator (c. 1920). This device was used to pump gas into the fallopian tubes while carefully regulating the pressure. If the gas passed through the tube into the peritoneal cavity, which could be detected visually and by listening for bubbles in the abdomen, the tube could be determined to be clear. If there was an obstruction or narrowing of the tube, the gas would not pass through. Tubal stenosis could be obstructive to the passage of an ovum and so could lead to infertility.
A later example of the equipment that we also found, Sharman’s Uterotubal Insufflations Apparatus (c. 1950) used a kymograph (which measures pressure using a stylus and a rotating drum) to record the pressure variations. Rubin’s apparatus was the first to use tubal insufflation to determine tubal stenosis as a cause of female infertility. It was regarded in the late 1950s as the twentieth century’s most important contribution to the study of female infertility, but was soon supplanted by the development of less invasive and more illustrative techniques, such as hysterosalpingogram, laparoscopy with dye, and hystero contrast sonography. Isidor Rubin was made an Honorary Fellow of the RCOG for his contribution to obstetrics and gynaecology, and I was able to find a photograph in the Archive of him at the ceremony receiving his Honourary Fellowship, which was used to accompany the display.
Our final pieces for the display were a Pie Data Medical Real-Time Ultrasound Scanner from the 1980s, the Polaroid camera attachment that went with it and three scans from the machine. As no harmful side effects from this technique have been found, ultrasound scanners have been used to examine foetuses since the 1960s instead of X-rays, which were found to be detrimental to the developing foetus. The ultrasound scanner is widely used to monitor the health of the foetus as well as to satisfy some of the family’s curiosity! It can also be used for gynaecology, for example, to detect ovarian cists, fibroids and endometrial abnormalities. Modern scanners have seen various adaptations, including using a curved transducer to get a wider field of view and harmonic imaging, which uses a smaller band of ultrasound frequencies in order to generate a clearer image. The scanner we found was too big to go in the display case so Chloe took a photograph of it against a plain background to put in the case instead.
Helping to put together this display gave me the opportunity to use the connections between archive and museum objects. Together they provide a powerful resource of the history and progress of obstetrics and gynaecology. It was challenging to come up with a theme when I knew so little about the context and purpose of the objects, in particular when much of the Museum collection is still uncatalogued. We spent quite a long time looking through boxes at random, and finding several objects the uses of which we could not even begin to guess! It was fortunate that the two artefacts we chose to research – the Sharman’s Uterotubal Insufflation Apparatus and the Polaroid attachment for the scanner – led to us finding the Rubin’s Tubal Insufflator and the Pie Data Real-Time Ultrasound Scanner. If we had not researched the uses of the pieces we started with, we would have been unaware of their connection to these others. From this slightly larger collection we were able to come up with the theme of developments in technology, and Chloe knew some of the history of forceps, and was able to find examples to illustrate it.
I really enjoyed learning a little about the objects and contributing to the display in order to tell their story. The only experience I have previously had of anything like this is dressing a shop window! It was interesting to consider the audience for the display and to try to meet their needs. The captions we initially wrote were not appropriate for the style of the display, so the College Archivist edited and added to them. Instead of focusing on descriptions of the instruments and accounts of their uses, which would largely be known to many College visitors, it is more interesting for them if we include a history of the objects and the people behind them. I was pleased when together we managed to create what I hope is a successful narrative.
Gemma Cook, Archive Volunteer, RCOG