WILLIAM BLAIR-BELL, founder of College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists

by Yoland

Unaccustomed as we are in Ruyton XI Towns to having among us men or women of world renown, apart from Arthur Conan Doyle, yet who knows of William Blair Bell?

The renowned Gynaecologist, William Blair-Bell, is listed as living in Eardiston House in the 1929 and 1934 Trade Directories.  His wife Florence died in 1929 and is buried in Haughton churchyard.  Blair-Bell himself collapsed on the train returning from London on 25th January 1936.  He was taken to Royal Shrewsbury Infirmary where he was confirmed dead.  He also is buried in the churchyard at St. Chads, Haughton, near West Felton. 

One has to wonder what brought him to this neck of the woods, could he possibly have encountered Robert Jones who worked in Liverpool hospitals, a major figure in the establishment of orthopaedic surgery as a modern speciality and who worked with Agnes Hunt in Baschurch and then Gobowen.

A review of `William Blair-Bell – father and founder` by Sir John Peel in 1986 tells of a man for whom we mothers should be eternally grateful.

“It has been said that Blair-Bell (1871-1936) was the greatest gynaecologist of this century: that he laid the foundations of modern gynaecology, raising it from a branch of general surgery to a separate and important new discipline.  His admirers stress his flair for research, his skill as a teacher as well as a surgeon, and his administrative ability.  Most of all, they remind us that he was mainly responsible for the foundation of the College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in 1929.  None who knew Blair-Bell denied that he could be difficult, but many said his achievements outweighed his failings.   To Lord Dawson “He was a loveable torchbearer who never forgot – or allowed anyone else to forget – that the was bearing the torch”.

Son of a General Practitioner, he began his career in a GP practice in Wallasey.  He was appointed as Assistant Consulting Gynaecologist to the Liverpool Infirmary in 1905 at the age of 34, when he began a lifetime of quarrelling with anyone who dared to disagree with him.

In 1921 he began his controversial work on the use of lead in the treatment of uterine cancer.  His biographer credits him with the introduction of chemotherapy for cancer.

*Wikipedia on Blair-Bell - He started to experiment with the use of Lead as a treatment, assuming that as a abortifacient, it could reduce or inhibit the growth of cancer. From 1921, he was using lead in the treatment of Uterine cancer[4], and colloid lead iodide for the treatment of Breast cancer, but later large scale tests proved both painful and dangerous.[

In 1926 there was an incident which typifies Blair-Bell`s character.  A new maternity hospital had just been completed, much of which had been designed by himself.  When it was found that the ground floor was 7 or 8 steps up from the street level, he instantly said this was quite unsuitable for pregnant women and he would never set foot in the hospital, and he never did.  But he did succeed in raising money from a shipping family to build a new gynaecology suite in the Liverpool Infirmary

With the establishment of the College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Blair-Bell was in his element, fighting the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons, who not only opposed the formation of the separate college but also their right to the establishment of separate examinations and qualifications.

Blair-Bell became the first President of the new College which he regarded as his own, he designed the coat of arms and the President`s Gown which he refused to pass onto his successor and he was buried with, if not in it.

The man`s home life was, to say the least, mysterious.  He married his cousin Florence Bell in 1898.  There were no children and for the next 30 years, until her death in 1929, she remained a shadowy figure.  None of Blair-Bell`s colleagues ever met her, even those who worked most closely with him. There were rumours that she occupied a separate part of the house, that she suffered from mental illness.  Certainly, in her final illness she was nursed in a separate part of the house which had no connexion with the part occupied by Blair-Bell.  After her death, as if in expiation, Blair-Bell endowed a lectureship in her name, named a house for her which he presented to the College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and arranged for her portrait to be hung in the house.  The portrait was painted posthumously from an old photograph.

It seems strange that he lived such a short time in our corner of Shropshire yet chose that he and his wife should be buried here rather than where he had achieved so very much in Liverpool.


 Blair Bell Haughton plaque   

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