Blair-Bell through the Eyes of a Friend and Colleague: extracts from the diaries of William Fletcher Shaw

As we edge ever closer to Explore Your Archive Week, it is only fitting that we give a nod to a figure who did much to capture and preserve the early history of the RCOG: College co-founder William Fletcher Shaw (1878-1961).

Signed photograph of William Fletcher Shaw inscribed with the words:
Signed photograph of William Fletcher Shaw inscribed with the words: “To Blair Bell in remembrance of the happy meetings of the provisional committee of our College 1924-1927 from his friend William Fletcher Shaw”

It was Fletcher Shaw who first approached William Blair-Bell with the idea of founding a college for obstetricians and gynaecologists. The two were not the first to raise the idea, but they were the ones who were ultimately successful in seeing it made a reality.

In the unpublished draft versions of his history of the RCOG, which is held in our Archives, Fletcher Shaw wrote:

“[Blair-Bell and I] realised […] that [obstetricians and gynaecologists] were as much one leg of the tripod of medicine as were general medicine and general surgery and we were prepared to assert that belief and to win.”

Fletcher Shaw’s extensive archive, which formed the basis of his published history of the first 25 years of the RCOG, is a treasure trove of detailed correspondence, memos, notes and other gems exchanged between the College’s founding members. As the College’s first Honorary Secretary, Fletcher Shaw kept meticulous records, each document annotated with the initials of the sender and a running number.

But what about his partnership with Blair-Bell? How did that relationship shape the College’s in its first years? And what does Fletcher Shaw’s archive tell us about both men?

In the 1950s, Fletcher Shaw pieced together an account of the College’s first decades. However, the published version of his work was heavily edited to avoid causing controversy and offense to his colleagues. One such edit is the story of Fletcher Shaw’s first and rather unflattering impressions of Blair-Bell:

“[Blair-Bell] was always very civil to me and never made any remark in any discussion or privately to which I could take any exception.

Nevertheless, he repelled me, due I think, to his egotism and unnecessarily biting criticism of other people. Even when I was made a member of the Gynaecological Visiting Society in 1914 and he sometimes seemed to go out of his way to be friendly I could never feel quite comfortable with him, and I’m afraid I rather avoided him.”

Fletcher Shaw goes on to write:

“… I received a note from Blair-Bell asking me to shoot with him. Not having any desire to spend a whole day with him I refused, but a second invitation a few weeks later could not be refused without great rudeness, and so without any pleasurable anticipation, I accepted.

It was the end of the season and there was just the two of us and a keeper. We pottered about all day, Blair-Bell proved himself a most delightful host, as I was so often in later years to find him; gradually I thawed and so began a friendship which was to culminate in the foundation of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.”

“I supplied the original plans [for the College]: [Blair-Bell] carried these to a higher plane, refused to compromise our claims to equality with the other Colleges, carried out publicly the spectacular part which no one else would have had the nerve to do I filled in much of the administrative detail and prevented some of the major clashes of personality which would have wrecked our early scheme.

It was a curious way to begin a friendship.”

Detail from a group photograph of the Gynaecological Visiting Society in Cardiff in 1925, featuring RCOG co-founders William Blair-Bell and William Fletcher Shaw shortly before deciding to found a College for obstetricians and gynaecologists.
Detail from a group photograph of the Gynaecological Visiting Society in Cardiff in 1925, featuring RCOG co-founders William Blair-Bell and William Fletcher Shaw shortly before deciding to found a College for obstetricians and gynaecologists.

This shooting party was the first of many the two men shared and they became regular fixtures at each other’s homes. Blair-Bell in particular became good friends with Fletcher Shaw’s wife, Nora.

As complicated and dual-sided as Fletcher Shaw’s feelings were towards his College co-founder, you cannot miss Fletcher Shaw’s lasting respect and gratitude for the Blair-Bell’s role in pushing the College through towards its goals.

“… I might have compromised on essentials but for the unmoving position of Blair-Bell. The two which are prominent in my mind are the foundation of the College as a College and not as an Association, and the other the retention of powers to examine. The importance of this I did not realise as did Blair-Bell and I’ve been more than grateful to him in recent year for what at that time seemed implacable determination.”

and

“Reading this correspondence again I am more than ever convinced that but for the combination of Blair-Bell and myself [the College] could not have been successfully launched.”

Sadly, towards the end of Blair-Bell’s life his friendship with Fletcher Shaw almost fell apart completely. This was down to long-running conflicts over the appointment of a male secretary to supplant the College’s longstanding secretary Winnifred Mallon and Blair-Bell’s disappointment over Fletcher Shaw not immediately running for College president after the end of Blair-Bell’s term. On being notified of Blair-Bell’s death in January 1936, Fletcher Shaw wrote in his diary:

“During all those long years in the formation of the College we worked intimately together, appreciated each other’s qualities, overlooking faults and were great friends.

Unfortunately, he did not like me to continue as Honorary Secretary after he had left and when he tried to supersede Miss Mallon I had to oppose him and so a coolness arose, but lately this was disappearing and I had hoped that we might have gradually resumed our old intimacy. Now that is not to be.”

But the worst was yet to come. In his will, Blair-Bell had left a substantial sum to the College but had stipulated that the money was to be released only after every member of the College’s Finance and Executive Committee, who had served during his presidency, had died (which resulted in the money being held gathering interest until 1968).

“Poor Blair-Bell. How nearly he came to being a great, and how dismally he failed.” wrote Fletcher Shaw in his diary on 8th February 1936, “I have promised to write an appreciation of him for the B.E.J. How I wish I had done this before I knew about the contents of this will.”

What strikes me most about Fletcher Shaw’s accounts of Blair-Bell are the times he struggled to understand his colleague. He speculated in the end that Blair-Bell’s troubled marriage and the death of his wife years before contributed to his inability to maintain healthy relationships with those he cared for.

After his own term as president of the College during the Second World War, Fletcher Shaw’s views on Blair-Bell had developed enough that he felt he could commit them to paper; ‘…time modifies most things’ he wrote in a letter to his son David in 1941, when sharing extracts of the diaries he wrote during the founding years of the RCOG.

When Fletcher Shaw sat to write his history of the College he must have deliberated on how best to remember his colleague and friend. In the end, it seems that he chose not to embellish or diminish him. He chose to remember both the good and the bad of the man he knew:

“Blair-Bell seemed to have a faculty for quarrelling and unfortunately could never bring himself to acknowledge that he was in the wrong, even when he knew in his heart of hearts that the fault was his, and that a frank apology would put things right again.

[…]

And yet he could be a most delightful companion and generous friend, showing at his very best with young people and animals. To young people he never talked down, but so interested them that they talked up to him and rejoiced in his companionship. If only fate had endowed him with a family, how much happier and mellower he would have been.

[…]

Many people looked upon Blair-Bell as hard, implacable, egotistical and quarrelsome, and never realised that, under the surface, he hungered for sympathy.”


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.

Professor William Blair-Bell (centre) with colleagues, including Professor Miles Harris Philips (left), deep in discussion, c. 1930.
Professor William Blair-Bell (centre) with colleagues, including Professor Miles Harris Philips (left), deep in discussion, c. 1930.

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.

Viewing 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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