William Smellie: Apothecary, ‘Man-Midwife’ and the Father of British Obstetrics

30 April 2021

Next Wednesday, 5th May, the world will celebrate International Day of the Midwife. Perhaps surprisingly, Exeter Cathedral has a high number of midwifery books in its Library.

The collection is largely made up of the work of William Smellie (1697-1763), a Scottish apothecary and ‘man-midwife’. The Library holds 12 of his books and also includes letters reflecting upon the merits of the then modern birthing techniques Smelley and his colleagues were introducing. Perhaps no wonder that many people were suspicious or even fearful of the early ‘man-midwives’! Although thanks to his successes, Smellie later became known as the father of British obstetrics.

It was from 1737 that Smellie’s medical practice began to concentrate on midwifery. He was in the habit of keeping extensive case notes on his patients and these formed the basis of the three-volume ‘A Treatise of the Theory and Practice of Midwifery’ (1752, 1764), which made Smellie the best-known name in midwifery in Britain.

The modern midwife provides care and advice throughout pregnancy, attending labour and birth. But prior to the mid-eighteenth century, the process of childbirth took place in an almost exclusively female space. Male physicians would only be admitted in exceptional cases.

In the seventeenth century this began to change and from the mid-eighteenth century, male practitioners were increasingly involved in labour and delivery. Many people remained suspicious or even fearful of the early ‘man-midwives’ though. It was considered unnatural for men to be involved and there was uncertainty over the introduction of new birthing techniques, including forceps. The involvement of men was felt to undermine the expertise of traditional female midwives.

By the nineteenth century though changes – including the use of implements to assist delivery, the introduction of lying-in hospitals, and an increased study of the anatomy and physiology of pregnancy and childbirth – meant the role of the man-midwife changed and the new field of obstetrics was established.

The Cathedral Library holds 12 books by William Smellie, as well as related works and letters, some referring to the impropriety of wooden forceps and the absurdity of his method of teaching and practising midwifery.

Happy International Day of the Midwife!

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