‘A felicitous courtship…’ Blair-Bell and the Founding of the Gynaecological Visiting Society

Today’s Explore Your Archive blog post takes a quick look at Blair-Bell’s ‘first baby’: The Gynaecological Visiting Society.

RCOG co-founder William Blair-Bell was certainly a powerhouse in the world of obstetrics and gynaecology, juggling research, publication and teaching positions during his busy career. But even he knew that without a network of strong medical practitioners behind him, his research could only go so far.

So in 1911 he founded the Gynaecological Visiting Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Blair-Bell had only been on the staff of a teaching hospital for six years when he approached his London and province-based peers. He certainly wasn’t lacking in confidence!

Annotated group photograph of the Gynaecological Visiting Society in Cardiff in 1925, featuring RCOG co-founders William Blair-Bell and William Fletcher Shaw (from left).
Annotated group photograph of the Gynaecological Visiting Society in Cardiff in 1925, featuring RCOG co-founders William Blair-Bell and William Fletcher Shaw (from left).

A professional network and social group for male gynaecologists combined, the GVS encouraged the demonstration and sharing of scientific research (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). It brought practitioners together for nation-wide and overseas travel, dining and drinks.

The original members of the college included some of the leading gynaecologists of the time including Russell Andrews, Comyns Berkeley, W.E. Fothergill, Eardley Holland, Ewan MacLean, Miles Phillips and Victor Bonney. Many of these men went on to form the backbone of the RCOG’s first Council in 1929.

Photograph of the Gynaecological Visiting Society taken during a visit to the Royal Infirmary, Liverpool, featuring William Blair-Bell (centre, in white), Ewen Maclean, Eardley Holland, and Miles Phillips, in 1931
Photograph of the Gynaecological Visiting Society taken during a visit to the Royal Infirmary, Liverpool, featuring William Blair-Bell (centre, in white), Ewen Maclean, Eardley Holland, and Miles Phillips, in 1931

Blair-Bell’s speech from the first meeting of the society on 24th April 1931 demonstrates his flair for the dramatic and his love of a long metaphor:

‘The Gynaecological Visiting Society of Great Britain came into existence with every sign of maturity on April 24th 1911, after a felicitous courtship and effective psychological insemination on the part of its father, who took to himself many partners in order to produce this polysomatic offspring. Never had a child so many willing parents […] for although the process of parturition could hardly be described as a dry one, yet not one drop of blood was spilled.’

As colourful as he was here, Blair-Bell didn’t exaggerate when he said their meetings weren’t ‘dry’. They could be loud and riotous as drinking during social hours was a major fixture of a GVS event. Bethel Solomons ended one letter to Blair-Bell in June 1930 with:

‘I enjoyed my first tour with the GVS enormously. I hope you got home safe and sound, and that you have suffered no ill effects from your mixed drinks!’

Blair-Bell’s last act as the society’s president was to arrange a dinner for the members of the GVS at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool on 25th September 1931. Their gift to him? A Rothenstein portrait of Blair-Bell, two copies of which are held at Blair-Bell’s other offspring: the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.


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 copy of Rothenstein's portrait of William Blair-Bell, inscribed, as a gift to Beckwith Whitehouse (1931).
A copy of Rothenstein’s portrait of William Blair-Bell, inscribed, as a gift to Beckwith Whitehouse (1931).

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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