Fantastic Finds for Friday: Eighteenth and nineteenth Scottish contributions to O&G

Our fantastic find for Friday brings us a pertinent reminder that the work of the College ‘transcends political frontiers’ and is a lecture delivered to the College by Foundation Fellow, Professor Robert W Johnstone of Edinburgh in 1949.

The William Meredith Fletcher Shaw Memorial Lecture was established in 1946 by former College President, Sir William Fletcher Shaw in memory of his son who was killed on active service in Normandy in 1944. The lecturer was to be a senior Fellow of the College who, in the opinion of the Council, had, by his professional achievements, improved the knowledge or practice of obstetrics and gynaecology. Professor Johnstone chose as the theme of his lecture in 1949 ‘Scotland’s contribution to the progress of midwifery in the early eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’, and finding this while cataloguing the papers of Sir William Fletcher Shaw this week, I felt that this was a very timely item to post on the RCOG heritage blog.

Professor Johnstone claimed that during the time of active development of the art and science of obstetrics, it was in Scotland that major achievements were made during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – ‘a contribution of a magnitude out of proportion to her size and population’. He presents a respectable list of names of Scottish-born accoucheurs, midwifery teachers and obstetricians, and these include William Smellie as the great teacher, William Hunter as the great anatomist, Alexander Gordon as the author of wise words relating to puerperal fever, and James Young Simpson as the pioneer in the use of chloroform in labour as pain relief.

William Smellie
William Smellie

Johnstone tells us that Edinburgh had the first Chair of Midwifery in 1726 – the English universities were unable to produce a university professorship until the late nineteenth century. The eighteenth century also saw the introduction of midwifery lectures for medical students in Scotland, thus putting the subject of midwifery on the ‘academic plane and [on] the level of Medicine and Surgery’ for the first time.

R W Johnstone
Professor Robert William Johnstone FRCOG

The RCOG at its inception in 1929 was quick to draw on the experience and reputation among the obstetric profession in Scotland, with 12 of the Foundation Fellows hailing from the Scottish universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen. John Munro Kerr, Professor of Midwifery at the University of Glasgow was first Vice-President of the College, and also an important signatory of the original articles of association for the College. There have been to date six College Presidents who have held positions at the Scottish universities, the first of whom was Sir Hector Maclennan during the 1960s.

In terms of administration, Scottish affairs have been recognised by the College from the early days of the NHS, with a Scottish Executive Committee founded in 1950 as a standing committee of the RCOG, ‘to advise the Council on matters relating to the National Health Act in Scotland’. Its first meeting was held on 17 July 1950 in Edinburgh, and the committee continues to represent Scottish needs in the specialty as a sub-committee of College Council.

However the independence vote goes in a week’s time, the College will be sure to continue to represent all needs in the specialty of obstetrics and gynaecology, and there can be no denial of the immense contribution to midwifery and obstetrics made by medics from Scotland.


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