Fantastic Finds for Friday: William Smellie, the ‘Father of Midwifery’

I was recently asked by the College’s President about our holdings on the ‘Father of Midwifery’ William Smellie, and I must admit that the resulting list was quite impressive! So as our Fantastic Find for Friday, I thought I would bring an overview of some of the fantastic sources we hold in the College Archive and Library relating to William Smellie.

First though – a brief introduction. William Smellie (1697 – 1763) was born and educated in the town of Lanark, in Scotland, and probably received his medical education in Glasgow. In 1720 he commenced practice as a surgeon and apothecary in Lanark. He remained a country practitioner for almost twenty years. In 1724 he married Eupham Borland, but they had no children, and in 1733, Smellie became a member of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. Smellie obtained his medical doctorate from the University of Glasgow in 1745.

William Smellie
William Smellie

Following studies in Paris, where he attended lectures on midwifery, he went to London in 1739 and established a pharmacy. In London, William Hunter (1718-1783) came to live with him, and he began to give obstetrical lecture-demonstrations to midwives and medical students from 1741.The courses attracted large numbers of students, and his teaching is described by a pupil as “distinct, mechanical, and unreserved.” His fee for a single course was three guineas. He delivered poor women free of charge if his students were allowed to attend the delivery, thus establishing a trend towards the attendance of medically trained persons at childbirth.

Smellie had a prospering practice, and in 1759 he retired to Lanark to devote the last years of his life to completing his literary works. He established an estate outside the town, and there died on 5 March 1763. He was buried near the church of St. Kentigern in Lanark, where his grave is marked by a tombstone and inscription.

Smellie always emphasised the importance of the natural birth process, and in general advised against resorting to surgical methods. He is best known for his descriptions of “the mechanisms of labour”, or how the infant’s head adapts to changes in the pelvic canal during birth. To him are owed the first attempts to measure the foetal cranium in utero. Smellie was also reluctant to use the forceps, and permitted caesarean section only in the most extreme cases of narrow pelvis. To him the life of the mother always had priority to that of her offspring, so, when he saw it necessary, he never hesitated to perforate and destroy the brain of the foetus in order to save the mother. Smellie developed various types of obstetric forceps, some with lock and curved blades, called Smellie’s forceps. He developed craniotomy scissors – Smellie’s scissors – and the method of delivery of the after-coming head with the child resting on the physicians forearm is known as the Smellie method. This was a rational attitude considering infant mortality at his time.

Theory and Practice of Midwifery


The RCOG Rare Book Collection contains first and third editions of Smellie’s Treatise on the theory and practice of midwifery (1752), which examines all aspects of the position of the foetus in uterus, the delivery, and pregnancy complications, including this description of twins:

‘When two children are distinct, they are called twins; and monsters when they are joined together; the first…are produced when different Animalcula impregnant different Ova; and the last are engendered when two or more Animalcula introduce themselves, and are included in one Ovum’.

Also in the library can be found Smellie’s Anatomical Tables, including outstanding anatomical drawings of the female body and developing infant, together with transcriptions of the medical lectures given by him (1764) and pamphlets relating to the development of the forceps and other medical instruments.


Page from Professor Miles Harris Phillips' research notes on Smellie
Page from Professor Miles Harris Phillips’ research notes on Smellie

The RCOG Archive has some little treasures which complement these publications, most notably the original printed issue of The Daily Advertiser, Wednesday 8 October 1746, which features advertisements for a course of lectures in midwifery by William Smellie, as well as lectures in physic and midwifery by Sir Richard Manningham, and lectures in anatomy by William Hunter. There is also a mounted printed certificate issued to one John Harvie and signed by William Smellie for attendance at lectures on midwifery, December 1757. Gilbert Strachan’s collection of engravings of eminent obstetricians includes a very distinguished looking Smellie, and three boxes of papers reside in the College Archive Store collected by Foundation Fellow, Professor Miles Harris Phillips which reflect the very real interest Smellie and his work had for his successors. Phillips analysed the publications of Smellie, he discussed his works with other eminent medical historians of the 1930s and 1950s, he even organised the restoration of Smellie’s library in Lanark, starting a fund for conservation of the books.


William Smellie's Library
William Smellie’s Library

Research into William Smellie would not be complete without reference to the obstetric instruments he pioneered, many of which can be found in the RCOG Museum collection. These include 8 sets of forceps (not including the wooden facsimiles) and a crotchet dating from 1750, which can all be attributed to Smellie.

Smellie's forceps
Smellie’s forceps


This is just an overview of some of the rare and unique items which can be found in the collections at the RCOG: all these items are available for research by appointment in the College Library – email for more details.

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