It’s that time of year again, Valentine’s Day, when I look desperately around the RCOG Archive for a hint of sweetness and romance so that I can lighten the day for College staff and others. This Fantastic Find for Friday literally fell into my hands this week while continuing to catalogue the papers of the RCOG Presidents: a letter from College co-founder, William Fletcher Shaw to President, Sir Ewen Maclean in August 1936. Fletcher Shaw had not yet fulfilled his role as President of the College, which came later in 1938 but the tone of the letter is one of finality, of reaching the end and no thoughts of his future changing. Also, unusually for Fletcher Shaw, the letter is hand-written, full of mistakes, so different from his usual measured and free-flowing typed letters.
The catalyst for this? The death of his wife, Nora Fletcher Shaw, the year before in 1935. Fletcher Shaw’s letter starts out with thoughts of his own mortality – ‘I have left in my will a thousand pounds to the College’ – and apologises that he cannot leave more but ‘I have given so much time to the College that my practice has necessarily suffered and it would be unfair to my family to leave a larger sum’. And anyone who has seen the volume of correspondence created by Fletcher Shaw between 1924 and 1929 during the foundation of the British College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (held here at the College and undergoing cataloguing) will have no doubt that his words ring true and his energies during these years were devoted to the cause of the College.
It is the second part of the letter, relating to Nora, that is poignant, concerned with Fletcher Shaw’s request that if possible, the Council ‘could find something permanent’ to which Nora’s name could be attached, going on to explain:
‘The College owes more to her than anyone but I, and perhaps Blair Bell, realised. On many occasions in the early days our best laid plans fell asunder as we encountered unexpected difficulties…On these occasions, but for the encouragement of my wife, whose heart and soul was in the College and who fully realised that my occupation in the College must damage my practice and therefore lower her income, I should have let the pieces lie…each time her encouragement and enthusiasm and especially her ability to see the best in everyone stimulated one more effort.’
Nora is said to have touched the heart of that grand and difficult College co-founder, Professor William Blair-Bell, to the extent that Blair-Bell kept on his desk a horseshoe given to him by Nora before the opening of the College House in Queen Anne Street by the Duke and Duchess of York in 1932.
Although Fletcher Shaw went on to perform greater things for the College, his life was still tinged with sadness, in particular with the death of one of his son’s, William Meredith Shaw, in action during the Second World War. He did marry again though, and his wife, Mabie Mary, widow of Dr Archibald Stevenson saw him through his Presidency and the difficult war years ahead. He died in 1961, having been knighted for his services to the specialty in 1943.
And although there are no lectureships or memorial prize funds in her name, Nora Fletcher Shaw’s portrait, painted in 1922 by the celebrated artist, William Charles Penn, hangs in the Fellows and Members dining room, and her name lives on in the College Archive with words such as these:
‘Few men are blessed with such a partner and a newly born enterprise with such a friend.’
Penny Hutchins, Archivist