THE ART OF REPRODUCTION| Volume 36, ISSUE 6, P560, June 2014

William Smellie and the Macabre Side of Obstetrical Science

      William Smellie, the pioneering obstetrician and anatomist, was born in Lanark, Scotland, in 1697. He practised medicine from the age of 23, but only received a medical degree in 1745 from the University of Glasgow. After moving to London, Smellie became a renowned teacher of midwifery; William and John Hunter were among his students. His most famous text, A sett of anatomical tables, with explanations, and an abridgment, of the practice of midwifery, was published in 1749. The copper plates for this tome were meticulously engraved by Charles Grignion, after drawings made in red chalk by Jan van Rymsdyk. Little is known about van Rymsdyk, but over the 20 years following the publication of Smellie’s text, his work was to evolve to even grander levels of realism.
      The texts of both Smellie and Hunter were monumental, though they may have been bought at a terrible price. The legitimate supply of recently dead, yet heavily pregnant women was arguably inadequate to meet the needs of these and other competing anatomists.1,2 Consequently, they may have either commissioned murders or turned a blind eye to the sources of their cadavers. Others argue that this was not the case: several of Smellie’s plates were based on the same dissections, reducing the number of cadavers needed; and others were legitimized by specific case histories explaining their origins.3 However, it remains possible that some of these women and babies died from criminal rather than natural causes.


        • Shelton D.
        The Emperor’s new clothes.
        J R Soc Med. 2010; 103: 46-50
        • Campbell D.
        Founders of British obstetrics ‘were callous murderers.’.
        The Observer. February. 2010; 7
        • Allotey J.C.
        William Smellie and William Hunter accused of murder.
        J R Soc Med. 2010; 103: 166