On the Trail of the "Machine," Part 2: The Lady Vanishes

Last week, I discussed the unusual nature of William Smellie’s “celebrated apparatus,” or mechanized obstetrical phantom. Today, I will continue with part two, where I give contemporary physician Peter Camper’s laudatory description–and discuss the woman-machine’s vanishing act. –Brandy Schillace
After attending Smellie’s lectures, he described the “contraction of both the internal and external os, the generation of water in parturition and dilatation of the os uteri are so natural that hardly any difference is to be noticed between these, and those in natural women.” [1] From Camper, a physician and surgeon certainly aware of actual anatomy, such a claim is high praise, if a little unnerving. The fetus dolls were, says Camper, also “excellently contrived, they having all the Motions of the Joints. Their Craniums are so formed as to give way to any Force exerted, and are so Elastick that the Pressure is no sooner taken off than they return to their natural Equalities.”[2] Afterbirth was represented by “various leathers,” and the “change in the os tincae are noted and made clear by colours.’”[3] The mystery of their composition is worth considering, too. India rubber was not readily available or understood until at least the mid-eighteenth century—and only recommended for medical use after 1768, when researchers Hérissant and Macquer recommended that it could be used for probes and tubes in laboratories.[4]

Though I have been able, through these sources, to reconstruct some sense of its appearance and workings, we still have but a fragmentary image: a machine, activated by levers, complete with a contracting uterus, tendon, tissue, organs—and possibly clothes; a fetus, with movable joints and some sort of “skin” surrounding an elastic and flexible cranium. Even when we put all the descriptions together, we seem to have more questions than answers, for there are no images of this curious device (an absence I ruminate on in “Mother Machine: ‘An Uncanny Valley’ in the Eighteenth-Century,” The Appendix Journal 1.2). Why wasn’t it reproduced? And—to return to the original question—where did it go? Other automatons, from Vacaunson’s flute player to the “defecating duck” remain and are even coveted. What became of this “mock woman”?

Without images, and with few clues, tracking the device is difficult. We can, however, trace the
purchase history of at least one: Dr. William Hunter was in attendance at the auction after Dr. Smellie’s death and bought one of the devices.[5] Hunter himself does not have the contrivance illustrated, however, nor does he put it on display alongside his Gravid Uterus. He does not offer it to the public in any way, in fact, and it is only with great difficulty (and much letter writing) that he is at last compelled to sell the device to someone who would. In 1774, an old pupil of Smellie’s, Dr. Edward Foster, purchased the mechanical woman, but shortly after it travels from England to Ireland, it passes out of record altogether.

This, you might know, occasioned my first trip to Dublin. I gave a lecture on my discoveries at the University College of Dublin for the Irish Centre for Nursing and Midwifery History—but my main purpose for traveling was to continue the (increasingly vain) search. I had hoped to find some reference to the device at the Rotunda, but alas—it was not meant to be. I did, however, discover advertisements in the archives; Foster expressed an intent to deliver two courses of lectures every winter, and one or two courses during the summer, in order “to establish a regular School of Midwifery in this City, by which Students may have an opportunity of attending, the whole Year, or at any particular Season.”[6] The lectures appear to have proceeded as planned—but Foster’s hopes were never fully realized. Shortly after, on April 1, 1779, Foster dies of a sudden-onset fever. Biographical reference to Foster are scarce beyond his short career as Assistant Master, but some further evidence is available in the archives of the Royal College of Physicians. There are three references—one to his marriage in 1768 to the daughter of Charles Lucas in the Freeman’s Journal; one to his treatise The Skeleton (which contains reference to Smellie’s other machines); and one to his death announcement in the Walker Hibernian.[7] Unlike the sale catalog of Smellie’s extensive medical collection, no record remains concerning the whereabouts of Foster’s effects. Because of the suddenness of Foster’s passing, it is possible that he died intestate—but anything from this period is, unfortunately, difficult to verify.

My search for the device began with unanswered questions—and unfortunately, it ends with them as well. The fire of 1922 (during the Irish Civil War) destroyed a great many records. Only the probated wills survive, as they were housed elsewhere. We know, for instance, that the will of Foster’s father-in-law was proved in the Irish Prerogative Court, but the document itself perished. Back-checking the secondary spelling of Foster’s name (Forster) only reveals that his wife survived him. He was living in Stafford Street at this period of time, and there was in later years a hospital nearby, but I have found no connection between his effects and that location.

What I have discovered is my increasing love of archival research, even though, as I remark in “Mother Machine,” some archeological searches ends just this way, “with many hours spent sifting sand to find… only more sand.”[8] I was unable to find the device itself, but through the aid of museum collections public and private, archivists, librarians and curators, I embarked on something just as worthwhile: a satisfying journey through our shared human past. In the process of searching for history, I found instead myself—a greater understanding of the things that move me. In the coming months, I look forward to sharing more of these “journeys,” and I encourage you to become active participants—not readers only, but museum goers, citizen historians, and curious and intrepid souls.

Welcome to the history of medicine!

[1] Qtd. In Johnstone, William, 25.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Qtd. In Ibid, 27.
[4] Brannt, William Theodore. India Rubber, gulta-percha, and balata. (Philadelphia: Henry Carey Baird and Company, 1900): 2-3.
[5] King, Midwifery, 134.
[6] Kirkpatrick, Book of the Rotunda, 81-82.
[7] The Kirkpatrick Newspaper Archive, RCPI I am ever grateful to the National Archive, and particularly to Gregory O’Connor, Higher Archivist, for his patience and assistance.
[8] Schillace, Brandy. “Mother Machine: An ‘Uncanny Valley’ in the Eighteenth-Century.” The Appendix Journal, 1.2 (April 2013), 71.

About Brandy Schillace 

A medical humanist, literary scholar and writer of Gothic fiction, Dr. Brandy Schillace spends her time in the mist-shrouded alleyways between medical history and literature. She is the Managing Editor, Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry and has worked as an assistant professor of literature. She also leads interdisciplinary conferences abroad for IDnet and spends a lot of her time in museums and medical libraries.

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