[BITList] The go-between

John Feltham wulguru.wantok at gmail.com
Fri Mar 5 07:09:18 GMT 2010

To read this Life of the Day complete with a picture of the subject,
visit http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/lotw/2010-03-05

Smellie,  William  (1697-1763), man-midwife, was born in the parish of Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire, on 5 February 1697, the son of Archibald Smellie (1663/4-1735) and Sara Kennedy (1657-1727). Little is known of his father, Archibald, except that he was sessions clerk to the parish church of Lesmahagow and therefore, as was customary at that time, a teacher in the local school. His mother, Sara, came from the family of Kennedys of Auchtyfardle, landowners of some wealth. There is some evidence that a daughter, Beatrix, had been born prior to the birth of William and that she died in infancy, so that William was brought up as an only child in reasonably comfortable financial circumstances. He was educated at the grammar school in Lanark.

Smellie was apprenticed to William Inglis, an apothecary in Lanark in 1714. It is certain that he must have received some medical instruction from John Gordon, a Glasgow surgeon. It was through Gordon that Smellie met the novelist Tobias Smollett with whom he became lifelong friends. It seems certain that Smellie then spent a time serving as a naval surgeon (March 1720 - November 1721) on the Sandwich before setting up as an independent apothecary in Lanark in 1722. He may have supplemented his income by acting as a cloth merchant. In 1724 Smellie married Eupham Borland (1696/7-1769) and remained in practice for the next fifteen years in Lanark. The marriage was childless. During this time in Lanark, Smellie gained practical experience in midwifery, being called in by local midwives when complications arose which were beyond their competence. From 1737 he began to concentrate on midwifery, having become aware of the recently published forceps. His chief techniques were craniotomy and turning the child. Smellie always made a habit of keeping accurate and often extensive records of most of his cases and this was to lay the foundations of his future career. On 5 May 1733 he became a member of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. However, it was not until 18 February 1745 that he was awarded his MD degree by Glasgow University.

Stimulated by his desire for further education, Smellie moved to London in 1739 and spent a short time in Paris under Gregoire in order to gain further experience. Back in London the next year, he stayed at first with William Hunter and then set up in individual practice, first in St Albans Street, then in Gerrard Street, and finally in Wardour Street, where he stayed until his retirement in 1759.

Smellie began his career in London by setting himself up as a teacher, advertising the times and places of his teaching sessions and training methods at the cost of 3 guineas for a full course. Over the next ten years he taught over 900 male students and an unknown number of female ones. He soon began to augment his academic teaching by taking many of his pupils with him when he was attending poor women in their own homes during their confinements. These patients were not charged any fees and his pupils were able to observe not only the normal but the many abnormal cases they encountered. Most of his lectures, which dealt with all aspects of pregnancy and labour, both normal and abnormal, were combined with practical demonstrations on what were referred to as 'machines' that simulated the female pelvis and the unborn child. He obtained real bones, and covered them with leather as he did with most of the different forceps that he used and improved. In spite of his having no official appointments at any of the London teaching hospitals his reputation both as teacher and practitioner grew apace. Not surprisingly he attracted a considerable amount of criticism from some of his peers, notably John Douglas and the midwife Elizabeth Nihell who condemned Smellie's use of forceps, his 'machine', and his dress at deliveries. She also claimed that he possessed 'the delicate fist of a great-horse-godmother of a he-midwife'  (Glaister, 304).

Having always kept exact records of his cases Smellie published in 1752 A Treatise of the Theory and Practice of Midwifery. This was supplemented two years later by a volume of illustrations entitled A Set of Anatomical Tables, with Explanations. The famous Treatise is divided into three volumes (the second appeared in 1752 and the third in 1764) in which he describes the physiology of pregnancy and the mechanisms of both normal and abnormal labour far more exactly than any previous writer had done. His description of the way the foetal head passes through the maternal pelvis was both accurate and original. The importance of the measurements of the pelvis is described as well as the influence that any variations of the maternal pelvis had on the course of labour. He devised many modifications of the obstetric forceps and describes their methods of application. He describes in detail the various methods to be applied in dealing with abnormalities in the presentation of the foetus. This monumental work was translated into French, German, and Dutch languages and became a classic in obstetric literature. The book made Smellie the best-known name in midwifery in Britain so that 'no-one could discuss the subject without referring to his book'  (Wilson, 125).

In 1759 Smellie left London and returned to his native Lanark where he owned a small property. His health was deteriorating and he suffered particularly from asthma, so that in 1759 he drew up his will, to which he added four codicils. During his life Smellie had collected a very large library and this, together with all his own books, he left to his old school in Lanark with a bequest of £200. Unfortunately his library became neglected and fell into a state of disrepair. It was not until 1931 that a small group of obstetricians visited his library and were shocked by the state in which they found it. Professor Miles Phillips arranged for the books to be repaired and rebound and transferred to the Lindsay Institute in Lanark, where they remain under the care of a permanent librarian.

Smellie died at his home in Lanark on 5 March 1763 and was buried in the churchyard of St Kentigern's Church, Lanark. The tomb now lies in a chapel erected in 1931 by the Glasgow and Edinburgh obstetrical societies in tribute to Smellie. According to one historian 'Smellie's work took midwifery onto a new and higher plane'  (Wilson, 125), and it was for this reason that he justly became known as the master of British midwifery.

John Peel 

Sources  J. Glaister, Dr William Smellie and his contemporaries (1894) + A. Wilson, The making of man-midwifery: childbirth in England, 1660-1770 (1995) + J. Butterton, 'The education, naval service and early career of William Smellie', Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 60 (1986), 1-18 + H. Graham, Eternal Eve (1950) + R. W. Johnstone, William Smellie master of British midwifery (1952) + private information (2004) [R. Miller] + D. Guthrie, 'The travel journals of Peter Camper (1722-1784)', Edinburgh Medical Journal, 3rd ser., 55 (1948), 338-53 + P. J. Wallis and R. V. Wallis, Eighteenth century medics, 2nd edn (1988) + GM, 1st ser., 33 (1763), 146
Archives Lindsay Institute, Lanark, Lanark Library + Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, lecture notes + Wellcome L., lecture notes
Likenesses  H. G. Hall, stipple (after G. Watson), Wellcome L. · W. Jardine, pen drawing, Wellcome L. · W. H. Lizars, line engraving (after G. Watson), Wellcome L. · W. Smellie, self-portrait, oils, Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh [see illus.]
Wealth at death  large library and £200 to his old school, Lanark

More information about the BITList mailing list