Fantastic Finds: the Case Book of Robert Barnes, 1857-1868

This month’s blog post is brought to you with the case book of 19th century English physician Dr Robert Barnes (1817–1907). Barnes was a pioneer of surgical obstetrics and gynaecology. He established the British Gynaecological Society in 1884 and was its honorary president until his death in 1907.

The casebook (archive reference S60/C) contains incredible accounts of cases attended by Barnes on behalf of the Royal Maternity Charity, including sketches, purportedly by Robert Barnes. One is a pencil sketch annotated ‘uterus lays across the pubus like a sack on a horse’s back’!

A pencil sketch found with Barne's notebook annotated 'uterus lays across the pubus like a sack on a horse's back'
A pencil sketch found with Barne’s notebook annotated ‘uterus lays across the pubus like a sack on a horse’s back’

The Royal Maternity Charity (previously the ‘Charity for Attending and Delivering poor Married Women in their Lying in at their Respective Habitations’, later known as the ‘Lying-in Charity for Delivering Poor Married Women at their Own Habitations’ and finally as the ‘Royal Maternity Charity for Delivering Poor Married Women in their Own Habitations’) was established in March 1757. The Charity offered a service to ‘sober and industrious’ married women ‘destitute of help in time of labour’.

It supplied them with medicines, provided midwives for ‘common cases’ and surgeon accouchers or physicians for more ‘difficult cases’, allowing them to give birth more safely and comfortably in their own homes. Robert Barnes was one of these physicians. Barnes’ casebook provides detailed notes for the patients he attended and is a rich resource for those studying early obstetric practices and the experiences of poor and working class mothers in London in the 1800s.

The volume features a number of loose papers (see the top of this post), including letters from a midwife, named Mrs C Young, requesting the assistance of Dr Barnes to a case in Hackney Road, London (July 1860); requests and invoices for attendance to cases on behalf of the charity; an interesting letter from G Roper, of Shoreditch, describing outcomes of three obstetric cases and calling for Barnes’ assistance (September 1862). Alongside these are completed forms from midwives requesting assistance from Barnes (1862-1867), mainly for women who experienced prolonged complications post-birth.

The volume was donated to the RCOG library in 1955.

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