Blair-Bell’s Cancer Curiosities

Today’s Explore Your Archive post follows the theme of scientific innovation and advancement. Not surprisingly, the heritage collections of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists are full of treasures, curiosities and mysteries concerning the history of medicine. Our collections cover a wide range of specialties in addition to our extensive papers and publications on obstetrics and gynaecology. One of the medical fields represented in our archive is the study of cancer and the pursuit of a cure.

A card sent to Blair-Bell during his cancer research, circa 1928-1929
A card sent to Blair-Bell during his cancer research, circa 1928-1929

RCOG co-founder William Blair-Bell conducted several lead-based experiments in the 1920s during the race to find a treatment or cure for cancer. Carrying on from his 1905 work, “The Determination of the Cause and Nature of Cancer”, Blair-Bell spent a decade studying the effect of lead treatments on cancerous growths.  At the time, lead was known then as an abortifacient which acted as a poison on chorionic cells.

Blair-Bell’s experimental trials, which he carried out with the Cancer Team of the Liverpool Medical Research organisation, had widely varying results. Some patients survived for many years afterwards, tumour free, but the majority unfortunately died while still under treatment.

During his search for a cure, Blair-Bell cast an incredibly wide net. He included members of the public as well as medical professionals when he called for suggestions for treating cancer. Blair-Bell soon received several unusual replies, which he put aside as “Cancer Curiosities”. These letters detailed the experiences of people from all over the world who claimed to have beaten cancer with treatments ranging from zinc ointment to quick lime.

How much Blair-Bell considered these findings from a scientific perspective, we don’t know. But we do know that when he realised lead treatment was not the ultimate answer to cancer he wrote that “a spirit of optimism must prevail” in the search for an answer. Perhaps he felt spurred on by knowing so many from all over the world were reaching for the same illusive goal.


Free Exhibit at the RCOG Library

Many Charming Letters

A 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.

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.

Professor William Blair-Bell and his surgical team operating in the Larrinaga Theatre at the Liverpool Royal Infirmary, c. 1920.
Professor William Blair-Bell and his surgical team operating in the Larrinaga Theatre at the Liverpool Royal Infirmary, c. 1920.

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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