An interview with William Fletcher Shaw on his visit to Australia in 1947

Seventy years ago, RCOG President and co-founder Sir William Fletcher-Shaw travelled to Australia to hold a membership examination in the country for the first time in the College’s history. While making this historic visit, Fletcher-Shaw gave a brief interview, which gives us one of the few recordings we have of him in our collections. But beyond this brief soundbite, his visit turned out to be a major milestone in the campaign to establish a separate college for obstetrics and gynaecology in Australia and New Zealand.

[n.b. the caption for this video should read ‘one-off membership examination’]

When the British College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (BCOG) was founded in 1929, there was huge enthusiasm from the College’s foundation fellows to involve as many doctors as possible from countries which were at the time the dominions of the British Empire. As a fledgling organisation still facing many detractors, the College needed to develop its membership quickly. It also needed to make good on its promise to improve maternal health care and the practice of the obstetrics and gynaecology for all subjects of the British Commonwealth, not just those in the UK.

But Australia’s obstetricians and gynaecologists took some convincing at first. The geographical distance between the countries and the global economic difficulties of the early 20th century made membership to the BCOG a risky prospect. Only a dozen Australian obstetricians were counted among the College’s membership during its foundation year.

This included Robert Marshall Allen. As well as a foundation fellow, Marshall Allen became vice-president of the RCOG in 1945 (the first member residing outside Britain to receive this honour). He was also chairman of the college’s Australian Reference Committee in 1941

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Black and white photograph showing President of the RCOG, John Shields Fairbairn, and R Marshall Allan, both wearing presidential robes (1935) (RCOG archive reference RCOG/PH9/1/2)

The College’s relationship with Australian practitioners improved during the early 1930s with the establishment of the regional reference committees. The first reference committee was set up in Canada in 1932, closely followed by one in India and subsequently in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. These committees were designed to bring together the collective voices of Fellows and Members outside the UK and to undertake tasks on the College’s behalf which were also in the interests of these countries.

The initiative worked and by 1938 the College’s Australian membership had risen to 14 Fellows and 64 Members. But the advent of the Second World War brought yet more complications.

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Press coverage of William Fletcher Shaw’s visits to Australia and New Zeland after the Second World War (RCOG Archive reference RCOG/N2/3)

Obstetricians and gynaecologists who joined the forces during the early years of the war naturally had to put their training on hold. This led to an imbalance in the number of specialists who had taken the MRCOG examinations by 1945 and those who had been prevented. Anxious that an examination be held in Australia for the benefit of doctors who had already spent years serving far from their home, the Australian Reference Committee requested that the RCOG hold a membership examination (MRCOG) in their country for the first time.

The RCOG responded by sending College co-founder and former President William Fletcher Shaw to Australia to hold the examination in 1947. This was the first MRCOG examination held overseas. Fletcher Shaw also attended to inaugurate the Australian Regional Council, which replaced the Reference Committee and granted more autonomy to the Australian representatives of the College.

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Press coverage of the first MRCOG examination in Australia in 1947 and the establishment of the Australian Regional Council (RCOG Archive reference RCOG/N2/3)

By the end of the Second World War nearly one third of the College’s membership practiced outside the UK and including 28 Fellows and 81 Members from Australia. This growth in membership and a precedent for overseas examinations made a separate Australian College an attractive prospect.

Shortly after his visit in 1947, Fletcher Shaw expressed scepticism towards the idea of a separate Australian College to the Australian obstetrician Bruce Toomba Mayes. Fletcher Shaw (perhaps ironically echoing some of the objections of those who had first opposed the foundation of the BCOG in the 1920s) was worried any separation of the Colleges would fracture unity between O&G practitioners in the British Commonwealth. He was also concerned that it would lead to Australian practitioners losing their influence globally.

‘Australia is growing rapidly: quite rightly, it is proud of its achievements in the past and confident of its future’ he wrote in a personal letter to Mayes on 31st December 1947, ‘[…] It seems to me that some [Fellows] and [Members] in Australia may find their enthusiasm for Australia obscuring their responsibility to [obstetrics] and [gynaecology] throughout the British Commonwealth of Nations, whereas separation would restrict their voices to Australia alone and that to a very small voice, to make them adhere to the central body even though this does mean some restraint.’

But these fears were eclipsed by bigger concerns in the early 1970s. The Australian Council brought to light the administrative, financial and educational complications that came with its affiliation with the RCOG. These issues included the difficulty in preparing candidates for the MRCOG examination in Australia and the cap on membership subscriptions limiting the funding available to support the Australian membership’s work.

After much debate and a 1977 referendum vote showing clear support for a separate College, a separate Australian College became a reality. The RCOG supported the Australian Council over the next four years to ensure the smooth transition of administrative powers to the new College. The final minutes of the last meeting of the Australian Regional Council on 7th September 1979 closed with ‘The President and Australian Council RCOG with great pride and humility closes the final Australian Council meeting and in doing so extends thanks to Council for the many years of advice, consideration and courtesies. Australian Council extends to The Australian College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists best wishes for total success to its aims and ambitions.’

Both Australia and New Zealand replaced their Regional Councils with their own Royal Colleges of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in 1980 and 1982 respectively. The two Colleges combined in 1998 to form The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

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