Soranus of Ephesus’ Gynaecology, STORE 194:23

In the Ancient Mediterranean empires, midwives were very much part of the medical profession, with several surviving texts – including the one below – studying obstetrics and gynaecology. We can name Metrodora (On the Diseases and Cures of Women), Herophilos (or Herophilus, Midwifery), and Soranus of Ephesus, the author of Gynaecology. Soranus strongly believed that midwives should be well-trained and as such respected members of society.

Sorani Gynaeciorum Libri IV. De signis fracturarum. De fasciis. Vita Hipporactis aecundum Soranum. Edidit Ioannes Ilberg, Adnexae sunt tabulae XVIII. Lipsiae et Berolini in Aedibus B.G. Teubneri MCMXXVII.

The copy held at the Whipple is a 1927 printing of the Ancient Greek text, edited by German philologist Johannes Ilberg (1860-1930) as part of the Corpus Medicorum Graecorum (CMG) collection.

van Deventer’s New Light, STORE 120:14

Let us travel through time and space to find ourselves in 17th century Frisia. Dutch surgeon, orthopaedist and man-midwife Henrik van Deventer was both a specialist of rickets and an advocate for the education of midwives – two subjects that the author did not expect to see together today. His interest in rickets, and bones as a whole, led him to making further research in the differences between male and female pelvises, and to note the impact pelvis shape had on childbirth.

 Henrici a Deventer Medicine Doctoris Operationum Chirurgicarum Novum Lumen exhibentium Obstetricantibus, pars prima: qua fideliter manifestatur ars obstetricandi et quidquid ad eam requiritur. Instructa pluribus Figuris aeri incisis, repraesentantibus multiplices Uteri posituras, pravosque Infantum fitus. Qu etiam ostenditur, qua ratione, urgente necessitate, singuli prave siti Infantes, sive vivi adhuc, sive jam mortui, in Utero tam obliquo quam recto, sine instrumentis, solis manibus, aut in rectum situm vertantur, aut pedibus extrahantur, salva Matris & Infantis vita. 
Multorum annorum exercitio propriisque observationbibus inventa, dilucidata, asserta, & denique Reipublicae emolumento literis mandata. Editio Secunda, Cui Novae Observationes accesserunt. 
Lugduni Batavorum: Apub Joan & Herm. Verbeek, Biblion. M DCC XXXIII.

His magnum opus, New Light for Man-Midwives and Midwives, was published in two parts: the first in 1701 for both Latin and Dutch editions, the second in 1719 (Dutch) and 1724 (Latin). Although van Deventer himself died in 1724, new translations (German, French, and English) and editions continued to appear, with our copy being from 1733, and records indicating there could have been new versions as late as 1790 [1].

New Light is beautifully illustrated and, as the title indicates, meant to be used by both male and female midwives. Dunn suggests that van Deventer was a supporter of better education for midwives [2], who at the time lacked formal medical training in Western Europe. Regarding 15th to 17th Dutch midwives, Greilsammer [3] states that they could take on apprentices. By 1551, a midwife had to undergo three years of training before obtaining her license, and in 1569 a new ordinance also set out religious obligations. However, in 1663, new ordinances kept midwives from attending women outside of childbirth. Finally, giving medicine to their patients was outlawed in 1697, further damaging their existing status.

Smellie’s Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Midwifery, STORE 11:20

Moving on to England, Thomas [4] observes that the midwife licenses accorded by the Church around the same period only required a declaration that the ‘nominee was of good character’ and ‘statement by local women that she was skilled in midwifery’. He also highlights that early modern English midwives did obtain recognition, but more for their social and moral qualities than for their medical skills. Changes in the 1690s led to the discounting of women’s statements when licensing a midwife in favour of a doctor’s opinion on the candidate (although the doctor himself might not have had any knowledge of obstetrics).

William Smellie was an early man-midwife and, married to a midwife as well, a strong believer of the education of both male and female midwives. Having studied medicine in Glasgow, and midwifery in Paris, Smellie opened his London-based practice in 1739, and started lecturing in 1741. His Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Midwifery described many potential complications related to childbirth that Smellie himself had encountered throughout his career – including information on what to do in case of breech delivery, hence the inclusion of his name in the Mauriceau-Smellie-Veit (MVS) manoeuvre. The three volumes were published between 1752 and 1764, the final one posthumously, Smellie having died in March 1763. His only other publication was A Sett of Anatomical Tables, containing his anatomical drawings, of which we only have a facsimile (however, the Cambridge University Library does own an original copy).

Portrait of the author (William Smellie, M.D) and title page.
Smellies' Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Midwifery, edited with annotations by Alfred H. McClintock. Vol I. The new Sydenham Society, London. MDCCCLXXVI.

A controversial article published in 2010 [5] accused Smellie and his student William Hunter of having murdered pregnant women with the purpose of dissecting their bodies to obtain more accurate information for his books. The article in question used the laws of probability and population statistics to conclude that obtaining the corpse of a nine-month pregnant woman in 18th century England would have been impossible. Roberts et al [6] refuted the article based on the lack of motive (Smellie and Hunter having an extensive network to help them obtain potential subjects), the length of time over which the dissections took place, and the manuscripts left by Hunter himself. Dr. Helen King later used the article, and how it became widely disseminated, as the subject of an article looking at the making and portrayal of medical history on the Internet [7].

Dewees’ Compendious System of Midwifery, STORE 192:5

On the other side of the pond and in newly independent United States of America, women remained the main providers of perinatal care. Licensing varied from state to state, and there was a clear opposition between midwives who ‘waited for nature to do the work’ (Radosh, p. 131) [8] and doctors or physicians who used instruments or medicine to help the process. This did not lower mortality, as the sanitisation of instruments was not yet standard, causing higher rates of puerperal fever that we already touched on in our article on Elizabeth Blackwell. There were also geographical, class, and racial factors which impacted on standards of perinatal care, likely leading to further discrimination and persecution against granny-midwives in the late 18th to mid-19th century [9].

A Compendious System of Midwifery, chiefly designed to facilitate the Inquiries of those who may be pursuing this branch of study. Illustrated by occasional cases. With fourteen engravings. By WM P. Dewees, M.D. Lecturer on Midwifery, member of the American Phil. Soc. &c. London: John Miller, 5, New Bridge Street. MDCCCXXV.

Back to early American men-midwives, Radosh mentions a few, including William Shippen Jr. who taught anatomy and midwifery at what is now the University of Pennsylvania, offering his classes to both men and women [10]. William Potts Dewees himself obtained his doctorate in medicine from the University of Pennsylvania in 1806, with his thesis focusing on childbirth [11]. He continued to practice midwifery, teach, and publish on the subject throughout his life, writing on both perinatal care and paediatrics. The Compendious System of Midwifery, first published 1824, went through twelve editions and became a renowned textbook in medical schools. The copy held at the Whipple is the first British edition of his work, published in London in 1825.

If you would like to see more of Dewees, the U.S. National Library of Medicine has digitised many of Dewees’ works, including several editions of the Compendious System.

Aristotle’s works, STORE 219:26

First published in 1684, Aristotle’s Masterpiece is a manual of both midwifery and sex education. Many different versions are known, all copying material from various medical sources, providing anatomical descriptions, recipes for home remedies, and pregnancy advice [12]. Fissell also highlights that the large number of references to the Masterpiece in both Britain and North America indicate that it was an important source of popular knowledge on sex and reproduction [13].  

Gilded blue spine with half-title "Aristotle's Works : coloured plates".

The Whipple holds three different pocketbooks, published by John Smith in London around 1890 or 1900, and titled Aristotle’s works – however, it is highly unlikely that any of the advice in them actually comes from the famed polymath, or that it would have been of great medical use to a midwife.

The Wellcome Collection has generously digitised the copy of The works of Aristotle held at the University of Glasgow.

Post researched, written and produced by Raphaëlle, Library Assistant.


STORE 194:23. Soranus of Ephesus. Gynaeciorum libri iv. De signis fracturarum. De fasciis. Vita Hippocratis secundum. Lipsiae [Liepzig]: in aedibus B.G. Teubneri. 1927.

STORE 120:14. Hendrik van Deventer. Henrici a Deventer, medicinae doctoris, Operationum chirurgicarum, novum lumen, exhibentium obstetricantibus, pars prima [-et secunda]: qua fideliter manifestatur, singuli prave siti infants in utero tam obliquo quam recto, sine instrumentis extrahantur. Lugduni Batavorum [Leiden]: Apud Joan. & Herm. Verbeek. 1733.

STORE 11:20. William Smellie and Alfred H. McClintock (ed.). Smellie’s Treatise on the theory and practice of midwifery. London: The New Sydenham Society. 1876.

STORE 192:5. William P. Dewees. A compendious system of midwifery: chiefly designed to facilitate the inquiries of those who may be pursuing this branch of study ; illustrated by occasional cases, with fourteen engravings. London: John Miller. 1825.

STORE 219:26. Aristotle’s works: containing the master-piece, directions for midwives, and counsel and advice to child-bearing women; With various useful remedies. London: John Smith. [1900?]


[1] R.M.F. van der Weiden and W.J. Hoogsteder. A new light upon Hendrik van Deventer (1651-1724): identification and recovery of a portrait. JRSM [Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine], vol. 90, 1997.  

[2] Peter M. Dunn. Henrick van Deventer (1651-1724) and the pelvic birth canal. Archive of Disease in Childhood Foetal Neonatal Ed, vol. 79, 1998.

[3] Myriam Greilsammer. The midwife, the priest, and the physician: the subjugation of midwives in the Low Countries at the end of the Middle Ages. Journal of medieval and Renaissance Studies, vol. 21, 1991.

[4] Samuel S. Thomas. Early modern midwifery: splitting the profession, connecting the history. Journal of Social History, vol. 43, 2009.

[5] Don C. Shelton. The Emperor’s new clothes. JRSM [Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine], vol. 103, 2010.

[6] A.D.G. Roberts, T.F. Baskett, A.A. Calder, and S. Arulkumaran. William Smellie and William Hunter: two great obstetricians and anatomists. JRSM [Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine], vol. 103, 2010.

[7] Helen King. History without Historians? Medical history and the Internet. Social History of Medicine, vol. 24, 2012.

[8] Polly F. Radosh. Midwives in the United States: past and present. Population Research and Policy Review, vol. 5, 1986.   

[9] Alicia D. Bonaparte. “The Satisfactory Midwife Bag”: Midwifery Regulation in South Carolina, Past and Present Considerations. Social Science History, vol. 38, 2015.

[10] University of Pennsylvania Archives & Records Center. Penn People: William Shippen, J. 1736-1808.

[11] Peter M. Dunn. William Potts Dewees (1768-1841) of Pennsylvania: pioneer of perinatal medicine in America. Archives of Disease in Childhood, vol. 75, 1996.

[12] Mary E. Fissell. Something Borrowed, Something Blue: the Strange History of Aristotle’s Masterpiece [Recorded lecture]. Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, 2010-2011 seminars. Retrieved from

[13] Mary E. Fissell. When the Birds and the Bees were not enough: Aristotle’s Masterpiece. The Public Domain review [Blog Post]. Retrieved from