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William Smellie (1697-1763)

William Smellie (1697-1763)

William Smellie was a pioneering Scottish obstetrician who lived from 1697 to 1763. He was one of the first prominent male midwives in Britain, and is one of the founders of modern obstetrics, making significant contributions to the understanding of fetal development and childbirth.

Smellie was born on February 5, 1697 in the town of Lesmahagow, Scotland, the only child of a merchant/burgess and his wife. He studied at Lanark Grammar School and was then apprenticed to a local apothecary. He began reading medical books and teaching himself obstetrics and entered medical practice in Lanark in 1722. He was accepted a member of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow in 1728. After studying midwifery in Paris for a brief period, he established a practice and pharmacy in London in 1739, and began educating medical students and midwives in 1741. Finally, he enrolled in the University of Glasgow and received his M. D. degree in 1745.

Smellie made made many contributions to the specialty of obstetrics. He invented an obstetric manikin for teaching, designed an improved version of obstetric forceps, and perfected a maneuver for management of breech deliveries At the time, midwifery was a female-dominated profession, and his work helped convert obstetrics from a lay occupation based on some amount of practical experience to a medical specialty practiced by trained physicians and surgeons.

In addition to his clinical work, Smellie was a prolific writer. His most famous work, “A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Midwifery,” was published in 3 volumes in 1752, 1754, and 1764, and became a standard reference for obstetricians for many years. In this work, he emphasized the importance of careful observation and measurement in understanding fetal development and childbirth.

In 1759, Smellie retired to his hometown of Lanark, and spent his time writing and compiling his findings into his books. He died on March 5, 1763, and was buried in Lanark, his wife passed away in 1769. He had no children.

  • “Dr William Smellie (1697-1763), the master of British midwifery,” by Peter M. Dunn, Archives of Disease in Childhood: Fetal & Neonatal Edition. 72(1):F77-8, 1995 Jan.