Fantastic Finds for Friday: ‘May we ask for your advice on the subject of hormones and expensive gynaecological drugs?’

Picture the scene: the War Office, April 1943, in the depths of war planning, blitzed, with rationing looming on the horizon, giving their thoughts to dwindling national supplies as well as theatres of war. Lieutenant Colonel Albertine Winner received a call from the Supplies Department – medical professionals are making demands for all kinds of drugs and supplies cannot cope or source them. What should she do? Ah, contact the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of course!

Albertine Louise Winner was a physician in civilian life, and joined the RAMC in 1940, rising to the ranks of Lieutenant Colonel and becoming consultant for women’s services. As such she was more than qualified to deal with such a request. In a letter to RCOG President at the time, Sir William Fletcher Shaw, she outlined the problem:

‘May we ask for your advice on the subject of hormones and expensive gynaecological drugs? You are doubtless aware that we issue these drugs from the War Office only on the recommendation of a gynaecological specialist. We are having considerable difficulty however in holding any stocks or decentralising as every specialist seems to have his own pet proprietary preparation on which he insists.

‘Our supplies branch would have their task enormously lightened if we could have a list of authorised hormone preparations including one of each substance in common use, so that they could issue the corresponding one whenever a proprietary article is ordered by name.

‘Could you advise us and tell us one reputable (if possible B.P.) preparation for each substance you consider ought to be obtainable? We could then ask to have all military and E.M.S. specialists circulated with this list and also decentralise our issues somewhat.’

The matter was passed to the College’s Finance and Executive Committee, who came up with a list of ten hormone and drug preparations, covering oestrin (possibly oestrogen?), progesterone, anterior pituitary hormone, male hormone, ergot, stovarsol and picragol, which Albertine Winner received by the end of May.

This correspondence was found within the papers of the External Affairs Committee [reference RCOG/B2/3] which are undergoing recataloguing at the moment. This is a fascinating series of papers covering the College’s external activities during the first couple of decades of its existence, and there is a fair bit of wartime correspondence there which demonstrates the extent of the RCOG’s contribution to the war effort as well as its frustrated attempts to change government policy relating to maternity services.

Penny Hutchins, College Archivist

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