Man-Midwifery Under Assault (Again)

Welcome back to the Dittrick Museum Blog!

In 2010, we featured a post about a contentious debate concerning 18th-century anatomist William Hunter:

[From Wednesday, March 3, 2010] Man-midwifery got enough bad press in its day, in 18th century London. Smellie, Hunter, and their confreres have been amply vilified, justly or unjustly, for medicalizing the birth chamber. These chaps have since been heroes of the OB world on one side, and paragons of misogyny on the other. Without wishing to take sides, I couldn’t help but be amused by the latest assault on man-midwifery in the British press, particularly the online versions of The Guardian and the Daily Mail. It appears that New Zealander Don Shelton, writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, now wants to paint them as serial murderers. Specifically, Shelton mounts the “case showing Smellie and Hunter were responsible for a series of 18th century ‘burking’ murders of pregnant women.”

Today, I would like to resurrect this post and say a bit more about “resurrection men,” murderers Burke and Hare, and why William Hunter is very unlikely to have been guilty of serial murder.

Don Shelton’s work is largely devoted to providing a statistical look at the supply of bodies, most notably of pregnant women, available for dissection in 18th century London. He concludes that “the chance of them [Smellie and Hunter] receiving an undelivered corpse was tantamount to nil.” Shelton then asserts that their only recourse “must” have been ‘burking’ and hence rendered them at least accessory to murder. The reason Shelton calls this practice “burking,” however, has to do with something that occurred in the nineteenth (not the eighteenth) century–the crimes of Burke and Hare, resurrection men turned murderers.

A resurrectionist was someone who procured bodies for anatomy students and doctors, largely by taking them from fresh graves. The practice was frowned upon, of course, but in a time where refrigeration was next to impossible and embalming still some decades off, a good body was hard to come by for teaching purposes. Generally, when someone speaks of resurrection men, they refer to the 19th century practice covered in Warner and Edmonson’s DISSECTION and in the recent exhibit at the London museum, Doctors, Dissection, and Resurrection Men. Bodies could be sold for money, and in the case of William Burke and William Hare, people just weren’t dying fast enough. They stood accused (with accessories Helen M’Dougal and Margaret Hare) of murdering sixteen people and then selling their cadavers as anatomy specimens for the purpose of training medical students.

The case against Hunter is, therefore, rather a-historical to start with. Shelton admits this, but uses it as part of his evidence:

“There was no network of resurrectionists in 1750–1754. Hunter’s  anatomy school commenced in late 1746 and he was the first anatomist to guarantee each student a subject. Prior to that, each London anatomist lectured upon one subject before his students, with single subjects resurrected as necessary. Undelivered subjects were extremely rare as doctors intervened to save the mother, or child if the mother died first [and …] were damaged by intervention and unsuitable as subjects.”


“The supporting evidence shows murder was the only practical way for Hunter and Smellie to procure 20 fresh, undelivered cadavers within five years, when one, or perhaps two, undelivered subjects might have been expected, but those were rendered useless by intervention.” [1]

Shelton’s claim has its supporters, but a careful review of the facts reveals another story. To begin with, Hunter does not procure 20 fresh corpses for the anatomies (Shelton also suggests, at one point, that there may have been 30). Upon carefully examining Hunter’s Gravid Uterus, which we have here at the Dittrick Museum, I noted only 13 subjects–and only five were in the late stages of pregnancy. The first died suddenly, the second had placenta praevia and her death was associated with ‘flooding of blood’. A third women had a breech birth, and the fifth woman, after giving birth, grew faint and died two hours later. Only the fourth woman’s history is unknown, and all of the other plates display less than full-term fetuses, meaning they probably did not die in or of childbirth, but from some other cause, like disease.

I am not the only one to have picked up this information from the plates and figures. Matthew F Kaufman and Nigel A Malcolm-Smith response to Shelton’s claim in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, explaining the same above, and adding that “Smellie’s Atlas contained 39 Plates, many of which contained diagrams. A substantial proportion of the other Plates displayed similar fetuses, although in different positions.” [2] Janette C Allotey also remarks on Smellie’s atlas, reminding us that the good doctor actually didn’t have adequate subjects and so had some drawings made from life and some from drawings–even posing fetuses in the pelvises of non-gravid women for the same of the artist rendering them. [3] Allotey reminds us of a third point, that of the near impossibility of finding women in the proper month of pregnancy, with the right condition to be illustrated, and then somehow spiriting her away from the friends and family who would have gathered to her aid at such a time: “Given some of the complicated midwifery cases illustrated, it would have been as difficult to seek out some of the examples […] in the living and have them murdered ‘to order’ as to open up graves at random and find such cases.” [4] Finally, Wendy Moore, biographer of John Hunter, offers this assessment in her comments on the JRSM site:

“So while it is not impossible that the women in Hunter’s and Smellie’s atlases were murdered (it is not correct to describe them as being ‘burked’ since that term did not come into use until after the Burke and Hare murders in 1827) it is not possible to make out a case based on laws of probability.” [5]

In other words, when it comes to history, speculation can sometimes lead us to unsupported (even if interesting!) conclusions. Debate, suspicion, and a healthy curiosity are very welcome in scholarship–and can sometimes lead us to new findings. But in the end, when it comes to “resurrecting” the practice of burking, some things are best left to the movies.


[1] Shelton, Don. “Shelton’s Response.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. May 1, 2010 103:166.

[2] Kaufman, Mathew F and Nigel A Malcolm-Smith. “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. May 1, 2010 103:166.

[3] Allotey, Janette C. “William Smellie and William Hunter accused of murder . . .” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. May 1, 2010 103:166.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Moore, Wendy. “Case Not Proven.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. May 1, 2010 103:166.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *