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O&G pre-20th century and foundation of the College

From early medicine to the formation of the College

Obstetrics and gynaecology pre-20th century

Women’s health was historically managed by women, largely in the form of unqualified midwives, who had no medical training and were quite often uneducated and steeped in folklore.

During the mid-17th century, physicians began to take a more active role in obstetrics, but there was no antenatal care, no gynaecological surgery, and obstetrics consisted only of the process of delivering the child.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the advent of ‘man midwives’ such as Chamberlen, Manningham, Hunter and others came with the introduction of obstetric forceps, the use of which became the prerogative of doctors. As in many other walks of life at this time, the use of instruments and machinery was initially not thought to be suitable for women.

As a consequence, the doctors who had previously been called in to help with difficult deliveries now had a distinct advantage. After 1720, medical practitioners started attending normal deliveries, probably intervening unnecessarily in many cases.

By 1518, a College of Physicians was established, and a Guild of Surgeons was formed in 1540. These two bodies, together with the Society of Apothecaries (established in 1617) and the universities, began to control medical education and the examination of physicians and surgeons.

Obstetrics and gynaecology (O&G) were recognised as specialties in the mid-19th century. Numerous specialist societies came into being, such as the Edinburgh Obstetrical Society, the Obstetrical Society of London and the Gynaecological Visiting Society. However, it gradually became clear to more prominent medics that O&G could only take their place as disciplines in their own right with the creation of a separate College.


Foundation of the British College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists

William Fletcher Shaw, Professor of Midwifery at Manchester University, is credited with driving the idea of the College towards fruition, together with William Blair-Bell, Professor of Obstetrics at Liverpool University. In a steady 4-year campaign, which saw off opposition from the established medical colleges and societies, the foundations and aims of the College were formulated.

The British College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists was founded in September 1929, with Blair-Bell as its President and Fletcher Shaw as Honorary Secretary. During the 20th century, the care and safety of women in childbirth improved, standards of healthcare delivery for women in hospitals were properly assessed, and O&G became a recognised part of the final examination for medical students.

Read about our royal history – from 20th century to today