“A restless, lovable torch-bearer”: Who Was William Blair-Bell?

In 48 hours, archives and heritage services around the country will kick off Explore Your Archive Week 2016! This event, run by The National Archives and the Archives and Records Association from 19th-27th November, brings our archives together to show off the best their collections have to offer.

Portrait of William Blair-Bell, first President of the RCOG, 1929 - 1932. Originally presented to him by Liverpool University and now held at the College. His missing finger was lost due to infection he caught whilst operating.
Portrait of William Blair-Bell, first President of the RCOG, 1929 – 1932. Originally presented to him by Liverpool University and now held at the College. His missing finger was lost due to infection he caught whilst operating.

Here at the Archive of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists we’ll be bringing you daily blog posts and slideshows of some of our favourite heritage items, as well as a free special anniversary exhibit for visitors to our Library Reading Room

Our focus is one of the most complex and enigmatic figures in our College’s history: William Blair-Bell (1871-1936), Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Liverpool University, founder of the Gynaecological Visiting Society, and co-founder of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

But who was William Blair-Bell outside this impressive epitaph?

The son of a physician, an accomplished sportsman and a general medical practitioner, he was appointed assistant consultant gynaecologist at Liverpool Royal Infirmary at 34 years of age and carried a lengthy series of clinical research and award-winning publications on subjects ranging from the use of the pituitary extract in gynaecological surgery to the treatment of cancer using lead.

He was a skilled surgeon despite the loss of the second finger of his left hand after a needle-injury while operating lead to infection and gangrene. Blair-Bell was apparently quite proud of this wound and it is clearly visible in his portrait, which hangs in the College, as well as in his RCOG presidential photograph. This infection however, led to him developing the cardiac illness that would eventually claim his life.

In 1911, Blair-Bell founded the Gynaecological Visiting Society of Great Britain and Ireland, which brought together practicing male gynaecologists to share academic expertise and to advocate for their speciality (The Women’s Gynaecological Visiting Club, for female gynaecologists, was founded in 1936 by Hilda Lloyd, who later went on to be the RCOG’s first female president).

Blair-Bell’s greatest and most infamous work was to jointly establish the British College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (later the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists) in 1929 with fellow obstetrician and friend William Fletcher Shaw. The two brought together likeminded obstetric and gynaecological specialists under a single banner. They faced off opposition from the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Surgeons to secure a single body to represent, train and examine obstetricians and gynaecologists in Britain and abroad.

Browse the College Archives and you will get the impression of Blair-Bell as a striking but complicated man with a reputation for ruthlessness and spite which, at times, far outshone his notable achievements in medicine. His stubbornness and refusal to compromise his vision for the College, which had been an incredible asset during its formation, alienated several of his colleagues and friends in his later years including, most famously, Comyns Berkeley, the College’s Honorary Treasurer.

Bertrand Edward Dawson, President of the Royal College of Physicians, described Blair-Bell in 1935 as ‘a restless, lovable torch-bearer, who never forgot or allowed anyone else to forget that he was bearing the torch.’

2016 marked the 80th anniversary of Blair-Bell’s sudden death. He died on 25th January 1936 from a coronary thrombosis on the train home from London after a College Committee meeting. He was 64 years of age.

Visit the RCOG and Blair-Bell’s influence is everywhere. His hand guided the selection and design of the College’s robes, colours, crest and coat of arms, and its motto Super Ardua Consurgamus Floreat Collegium (‘Together we shall rise above our difficulties, long may the College flourish’) was adapted from Blair-Bell’s family coat of arms.

In 1931 he wrote to Fletcher Shaw ‘Unless we establish our own traditions and take our proper place in the sun as obstetricians and gynaecologists, you may be quite sure no one else will do it for us.’ His words were taken to heart and a few years after Blair-Bell’s death the College was to achieve his and Fletcher Shaw’s dream of a Royal Charter, becoming the third royal medical college to be established in England.


Free Exhibit at the RCOG Library

Many Charming Letters

A small selection of charming, amusing and illuminating letters exchanged between RCOG co-founders William Blair-Bell and William Fletcher Shaw during the early years of the College will be on display in the RCOG Library Reading Room from Monday 21st November.

A caricature of William Blair-Bell by W.J. Laird (circa 1929)
A caricature of William Blair-Bell by W.J. Laird (circa 1929)

Joining these letters will be artefacts from the College’s heritage collections including William Fletcher Shaw’s obstetric instruments, William Blair-Bell’s original designs for the College’s official seal, and the badge worn by the College’s Presidents at official ceremonies.

Entry is free and commemorative postcards will be on sale in the Library and at the College reception desk.

Visit us:

Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologist
27 Sussex Place
Regent’s Park
London NW1 4RG
https://www.rcog.org.uk/en/contact-us/directions/

Explore Your Archive

Explore Your Archive is a campaign designed for archives of all kinds throughout the UK and Ireland. It is run by The National Archives and the Archives and Records Association. This year the main launch week will run from 19 to 27 November 2016. 

Find out more at http://exploreyourarchive.org/

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