birth, dissection, midwives, museums and collections, womb

The skull inside the doll…

Webster was much possessed by death
And saw the skull beneath the skin… (T.S. Eliot, Whispers of Immortality)

I was very excited when the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (@RCPEHeritage) tweeted pictures today illustrating that they have been ‘X-raying two of our circa 18thc midwifery manikins (also known as ‘phantoms’) – to discover that they are not only comprised of cloth and wire, but also contain human skulls.’ They linked to a useful blog post by Margaret Carlyle; have a look at the illustrations! When I was working on 18th-century man-midwives for my book Midwifery, Obstetrics and the Rise of Gynaecology (Ashgate, 2007), I was very struck by the ingenuity shown by those who constructed models of the womb and pelvis in order to train men and women in how normal and difficult births proceeded. Here is some of what I discovered; there’s more in the book.

The devices contrived by men-midwives to train those dealing with birth were not a million miles away from various shows of the time which demonstrated the body’s functions to the general public. In London in 1736 a display at the Royal Exchange included what contemporaries described as a wax womb ‘laid open at the Top, and therein you see the little inhabitant endeavouring to quit his Prison, and be released’, a reference to the ancient belief that labour is initiated by the child’s attempts to escape from the womb, a model which makes the labouring woman passive. In 1747 the public could pay a shilling to see the model of a woman in the eighth month of pregnancy ‘chained down upon a Table, supposed to be opened alive’ as one of the main attractions at Benjamin Rackstrow’s museum. This model travelled, and was in London in 1733. The link between entertainment and education was close.

William Smellie, the influential man-midwife who taught in London for many years, was clearly aware of these devices, and saw a model in action to demonstrate delivery positions in Paris in 1739. But his own design, which he called his ‘Machine’, involved something very different from the French ones, which were based on a real pelvis covered in leather, inside a basket-work structure. Smellie added ligaments, muscles and skin in artificial materials: he also added cloth dolls to simulate the foetus, and dolls of this kind are the ‘manikins’ which the RCPE has been investigating. Smellie’s aim was to ‘exactly imitate real women and children’, different machines being used for different problems that the man-midwife may encounter, such as the ‘Circumstances of the Child’, ‘the Narrowness of the Bones of the Mother’ and so on. The syllabus to Smellie’s course shows that his ‘Machines’ were in regular use, alongside ‘wet and dry Preparations, and other artificial Contrivances’ to add to the accuracy of what was shown to the students. He also developed artificial wombs with hinges, some also having glass windows.


A demonstration was considered far more valuable than a book. By seeing a ‘machine’ in action, ‘every material circumstance might be laid open to the naked Eye’; on the advantages of ‘ocular demonstration’ over words, one admirer commented that ‘Were we to describe the method of buckling our own shoes it would puzzle a Philosopher to understand us’. For Smellie nothing, however, substituted for his students’ attendance at ‘real labours’.

By 1747 Smellie had three machines, with six manikins or, as he rather disturbingly called them, ‘artificial Children’. He continued to develop the dolls. One had a head that separated from the body so that he could demonstrate the difficult situation in which the head remained in the uterus after the rest of the body had been extracted with instruments. Four machines and eight of the dolls were sold at auction in June 1770 by one of his heirs, Dr John Harvie. One machine, bought by William Hunter, was subsequently sold to Smellie’s pupil Edward Foster of the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin, where he was using it in 1774.

Opponents found various aspects of Smellie’s teaching machines unconvincing. By 1760, Elizabeth Nihell famously dismissed them as ‘a mere wooden machine’ or ‘a wooden statue’, and the babies as ‘a wax-doll’ or ‘an artificial doll’. William Douglas correctly described the machines as based on those used in Paris, where ‘Madam is a Piece of Basket-work, covered with a Kind of Silk, in Imitation of her Skin, and appears in her Buff’. But as well as being made of ‘natural Bones’, in the Smellie machines ‘she has the Addition of Shoes, Stockings, and the common Apparel of Women, but of what Use are these to the Learner?’ The quest for realism, then, included female clothing. Am I alone in finding that very disturbing?

As for the dolls, Douglas compared Smellie unfavourably with the French, who ‘use a natural Foetus in their Machines’, rather than his ‘little stuffed Babies’. A natural foetus? Using stillborn babies to demonstrate childbirth seems to me to be going rather beyond the cloth dolls containing real skulls which the RCPE has now discovered. While some 18th-century practitioners (not surprisingly) preferred ‘little stuffed Babies’ to the unpleasant tendency of real corpses to shed skin when touched, Douglas also claimed that using the ‘stuffed Babies’ prevented Smellie’s pupils from detecting by touch precisely which part of the emerging baby was presenting for delivery.

On Twitter, the RCPE’s announcement has led to responses ranging from excitement to disgust, with several people calling for the skulls to be given a proper burial, or at the very least suggesting that the curators should ‘give their little heads a stroke’. The use of skulls seems very alien to us but I hope the examples I’ve given here show that, in the context of 18th-century practices around teaching future practitioners, it is not that strange. It will be interesting to hear whether other collections will find the same secrets within their own manikins!


To find out more:

Primary sources: Anon., A Catalogue of the Entire and Inestimable Apparatus for Lectures in Midwifry, Contrived with Consummate Judgment, and Executed with Infinite Labour, by the Late Ingenious Dr William Smellie, Deceased, London: 1770.

William Douglas, A Letter to Dr Smelle [sic] shewing the impropriety of his New-invented wooden forceps: as also, the absurdity of his method of Teaching and Practising Midwifery, London: J. Roberts, 1748.

––– A Second Letter to Dr. Smelle [sic], and an answer to his pupil, confirming the impropriety of his wooden forceps; as also of his method of teaching and practising midwifery, London: S. Paterson, 1748.

Elizabeth Nihell, A Treatise on the Art of Midwifery. Setting forth various abuses therein, especially as to the practice with instruments: the whole serving to put all rational inquirers in a fair way of very safely forming their own judgment upon the question; which it is best to employ, in cases of pregnancy and lying-in, a man-midwife or, a midwife, London: A. Morley, 1760.

Secondary materials: Bonnie Blackwell, ‘Tristram Shandy and the Theater of the Mechanical Mother’, English Literary History, 68 (2001).

Maritha Rene Burmeister, Popular Anatomical Museums in Nineteenth-century England (PhD thesis, Rutgers University, 2000).

Pam Lieske, ‘Configuring Women: William Smellie’s Obstetrical Machines and the Poor’, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, 29 (2000).

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