The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists

Obstetrics and Gynaecology before the RCOG

Women’s health was, historically, managed by laywomen with no formal training and whose practice was seen as being steeped in folklore. During the mid-17th century, trained physicians began to take a more active role in obstetrics. However, their focus was on the delivery of children rather than antenatal care and gynaecological surgery.

By 1518, a College of Physicians was established. This was followed by a Guild of Surgeons, which was formed in 1540. These two bodies, together with the Society of Apothecaries (established in 1617) and the country’s universities, began to control medical education and the examination of physicians and surgeons, including those specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the advent of ‘man midwives’, such as the William and Peter Chamberlen, introduced obstetric forceps to western medicine. The prerogative of male doctors only at this time, the use of surgical instruments and machinery by women was discouraged. As a consequence, the doctors who had previously been called in to help with difficult deliveries now had a distinct advantage.

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Figure of a child in utero from A Set of Anatomical tables with Explanations by William Smellie

Obstetrics and gynaecology were recognised as specialties in the mid-19th century. Numerous specialist societies came into being, such as the Edinburgh Obstetrical Society and the Gynaecological Visiting Society. However, obstetricians and gynaecologists only represented a small minority of the General Medical Council. As a result, opportunities for the advancement of the profession and the study of obstetrics, gynaecology and midwifery were few and far between.

It soon became clear to more prominent medics that the specialty could only take their place as disciplines in their own right with the creation of a new College dedicated to obstetrics and gynaecology.

Founders and the birth of the College

We owe the foundation of the College to two early 20th century obstetricians: William Blair-Bell, Professor of Obstetrics at Liverpool and William Fletcher Shaw, Professor of Midwifery at Manchester.

William Blair-Bell (1871-1936) was the College’s first President from 1929-1932 and was instrumental in the design of the College’s coat of arms, membership certificates and ceremonial robes. He was a founder of the Gynaecological Visiting Society and also known for his cancer research.

William Fletcher Shaw (1878-1961) was the College’s Honorary Secretary and later College President from 1938-1943. His personal and professional papers contain a meticulous record of the early years of the College, much of which made it into his book Twenty-Five Years: The Story of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

In his history of the RCOG, Fletcher Shaw wrote that during the early 20th century ‘…the gynaecologist was merely a disappointed surgeon, without training in the branch he now practiced.’

This all changed when he and Blair Bell founded the RCOG to provide a central, specialised means of entry into the profession and a recognition of the status of its practitioners. They worked alongside members of the Gynaecological Visiting Society and representatives in obstetrics and gynaecology from all over the UK. In a steady 4-year campaign, which saw off cynicism and opposition from more established medical colleges and some of their own colleagues, the foundations and aims of the College were defined and made a reality.

The British College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists was founded in September 1929, with Blair-Bell as its President and Fletcher Shaw as Honorary Secretary.

The reasons for the establishment of an independent college for obstetricians and gynaecologists were four fold:

  • To create a portal through which all studying obstetricians and gynaecologists were expected to pass through to become qualified
  • To prevent obstetrics and gynaecology from begin separated as fields of study
  • To bring together teachers of obstetrics and gynaecology to secure better facilities for teaching and examinations
  • To represent and support all obstetricians and gynaecologists

Over the next twenty-five years the College worked to improve the care and safety of women in childbirth, standards of healthcare delivery for women in hospitals, and established membership examinations for newly qualified obstetricians and gynaecologists in Britain and its former colonies. Reference Committees were quickly established including practitioners in India, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, to share resources and medical expertise.

The College gained acceptance and recognition by 1938 when it was granted a ‘royal’ title by King George VI. The official award of a Royal Charter delayed until 1947 due to the advent of the Second World War.

Queen Anne Street

The College originally operated from William Fletcher Shaw’s rooms in Manchester until it moved to London, relocating to Queen Anne Street, near Harley Street in 1932. The original headquarters were opened by the then Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Elizabeth, the Queen Mother). The Queen Mother was later made an Honorary fellow of the College in 1949.

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The College’s first London headquarters on Queen Anne Street.

She had been invited to do so by Sir Henry Simson (member of the RCOG Council and the Royal obstetrician who had attended her during the births of the future Queen Elizabeth II and her sister Margaret). Sadly, Simson died suddenly, while operating, before the College House was opened.

The Current Site

The College’s current headquarters were designed by Louis de Soissons, the architect responsible for the Wellcome Foundation building, Welwyn Garden City and Hobbs Gate at the Oval Cricket Ground. He died in 1962, but his firm still exists.

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A colour drawing by Henry Rushbury of the College’s current building, opened in 1960

The building was funded through donations from College patrons and members. Its foundation stone was laid by the Queen Mother on 6th November 1957.

The College today

Today the RCOG has over 14,000 members worldwide.

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Our work involves a range of initiatives to strengthen the practice of obstetrics and gynaecology and improve the healthcare received by women globally. These projects include:

  • Working with the RCOG Women’s Network to ensure women’s views on the care they receive are at the heart of everything we do
  • Publishing clinical guidelines that set the standard for high quality women’s health care
  • Publishing patient information leaflets to educate and inform members of the public undergoing obstetric and gynaecological procedures
  • Providing a continuing professional development programme for qualified O&G clinicians, including practical skills courses and educational and scientific meetings and conferences
  • Carrying out audit and quality improvement projects to improve women’s health care
  • Promoting academic work in the specialty, to ensure continued improvement in the service our members offer to women
  • Working with international partners to improve sexual and reproductive health care and reduce maternal morbidity and mortality worldwide
  • Advising the government and other public bodies on healthcare matters relating to O&G
  • Helping employers, commissioners and managers provide safe and sustainable services that improve women’s health through our invited review service

Find out more about the RCOG on its website: rcog.org.uk