Papers relating to William Smellie

Scope and Content

Correspondence and research notes relating to Professor Phillips' interest in the works of William Smellie, and his association with his memorial and library, including biographies of Dr Smellie, copies of original letters by Dr Smellie, correspondence regarding a possible new biography of Smellie, reprints of Dr Smellie's works, and lists of books in the library of Dr Smellie, restored by Professor Phillips.

Administrative / Biographical History

William Smellie (1697-1763) was the son of Archibald Smellie and his wife, Sara Kennedy. He attended the grammar school in his native town of Lanark, in Scotland, and probably received his medical education in Glasgow. In 1720 he commenced practice as a surgeon and apothecary in Lanark. He remained a country practitioner for almost twenty years. In 1724 he married Eupham Borland, who survived him, and died on 27 June 1769. They had no children.

In 1733, Smellie became a member of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. Following studies in Paris, where he attended lectures on midwifery, he returned to London in 1739 and established a pharmacy.

In London, William Hunter (1718-1783) came to live with him, and Smellie began to give obstetrical lecture-demonstrations to midwives and medical students in 1741.The courses attracted large numbers of students, and his teaching is described by a pupil as 'distinct, mechanical, and unreserved.' Smellie obtained his medical doctorate from the University of Glasgow in 1745.

Smellie had a prospering practice: he delivered poor women free of charge if his students were allowed to attend the delivery, thus establishing a trend towards the attendance of medically trained persons at childbirth. In 1759 he retired to Lanark to devote the last years of his life to completing his literary works. He bought a small property called Kingsmuir. This, with other land which he had bought before, formed an estate called Smellom, on which he built a house, and there died on 5 March 1763. He was buried near the church of St. Kentigern in Lanark, where his grave is marked by a tombstone and inscription.

Smellie always emphasised the importance of the natural birth process, and in general advised against resorting to surgical methods. He is best known for his descriptions of 'the mechanisms of labour', or how the infant's head adapts to changes in the pelvic canal during birth. To him are owed the first attempts to measure the foetal cranium in utero.

Smellie was also reluctant to use the forceps, and permitted caesarean section only in the most extreme cases of narrow pelvis. To him the life of the mother always had priority to that of her offspring, so, when he saw it necessary, he never hesitated to perforate and destroy the brain of the foetus in order to save the mother.

Smellie developed various types of obstetric forceps, some with lock and curved blades, called Smellie's forceps. He developed craniotomy scissors, Smellie's scissors. The method of delivery of the after-coming head with the child resting on the physicians forearm is known as the Smellie method. This was a rational attitude considering infant mortality at his time.

Professor Phillips' interest in Smellie came through his interest in the history of the specialty of obstetrics and gynaecology, and was encouraged by his contemporaries, in particular Professor R W Johnstone. Phillips was instrumental in restoring the book collection of William Smellie at Lanark Hospital (1936-1940).



This is a composite series, retaining where possible original order and groupings of papers.

Conditions Governing Access

Open to external access by appointment, Monday to Friday 10am to 4pm. mailto:

Other Finding Aids

File level descriptions for this series are available from the RCOG Archivist. mailto:

Physical Characteristics and/or Technical Requirements

Some items are fragile and require careful handling

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright is vested in the estate of Professor Miles Harris Phillips.

Reproductions are available at the discretion of the College Archivist.

Custodial History

These papers were found spread over five boxes of material, and have been brought together to form a composite series of material of a similar nature.

Related Material

Copies of the following works by Dr William Smellie are available in the RCOG Library:

System of midwifery, William Smellie, 1795 [CR Smellie]

A treatise on the theory and practice of midwifery, William Smellie, 1752 [CR Smellie]

A collection of cases and observations in midwifery, William Smellie, 1754 [CR Smellie]

A collection of preternatural cases and observations in midwifery, William Smellie, 1764 [CR Smellie]

An abridgement of the practice of midwifery : and a set of anatomical tables with explanations, William Smellie, produced by Norman John, 19- [CR Smellie]