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Last Updated: Friday, 14 January 2005, 13:29 GMT
Museum's hidden treasures
By Jane Elliott
BBC News Health Reporter

Some of the exhibits kept behind doors

When the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology decided to open a museum of its interesting memorabilia it was faced with a rather delicate problem - how to display the exhibits without causing offence.

The exhibition covers everything from the development of Caesarean section to modern-day obstetric imaging - as well as a section charting the substances that have been used as contraceptives over the years including lemon juice and crocodile dung.

There are also some unusual exhibits - including an 'exquisite ivory carving of a female anatomy.'

For some visitors, the mere glimpse of forceps could send them into a swoon while others would want to pore over the goriest of exhibits.

And, because the museum would be accessible to lay people using the college as well as medics, they were aware that they had to ensure a balance of taste.

So they came up with a novel approach to 'hide and intrigue', with the more graphic exhibits being hidden away in drawers and cabinets, but available to those who were interested.


Ian Fergusson, Honorary Curator said: "Over the years attempts at having an open museum fell apart because it was too upfront.

"There a few glass front windows where you can see thinks like a microscope or a midwifery bag and there are some forceps in view.

Over the years attempts at having an open museum fell apart because it was too upfront
Ian Fergusson, Honorary Curator

"The idea behind the museum is to provoke people's inquisitive side. We were sensitive to the fact that some passers-by may not want to see certain items, so many of the objects are hidden in drawers, little cabinets and cupboards. It will be suitable for school children, the casual passer-by and the medical clinician.

The museum has touch screen televisions, video clips and audio commentaries to bring exhibits to life.

Fifty-four biographies map the work of celebrated anatomists starting with Leonardo da Vinci and Andreas Vesalius and finishing with the pioneering work of Patrick Steptoe on infertility treatment.


Others include a copy of a letter from the Queen's physician, Sir James Reid, which revealed that after her death he and her maid servant discovered that she had a complete prolapse of the womb as they dressed her body for the funeral - something none of them had been aware of before.

Combined cranioclast and cephalotribe
Destructive forceps used when the foetus can not be delivered live
It also includes letters from Florence Nightingale, about the state of hospitals. Professor Geoffrey Chamberlain, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology, said that for him one of the most interesting exhibits was the Camberlen forceps.

"This was a family in the 17th century, who had fled from Huguenot France. There were four generations of this family who invented and used obstetric forceps.

"Using their method was the first time you could deliver a live baby from a woman. And the forceps they developed have saved many millions of women and babies."

Vaginal specula
A vaginal specula

But he said that because the family relied on their invention to provide an income, they did not share their secrets.

"They were also rogues. They kept their secret to themselves and would not allow anybody access to them. It was a cash venture.

"When they went to deliver the babies they would have two men carry a large chest into the room and then take the forceps out of their pocket when nobody could see. After the birth they would carry out the chest and slip the forceps back into their pocket."


Mr Fergusson agreed that their forceps were one of the most interesting exhibits. He added that in 1671 Hugh Chamberlen had been invited over to France to display his technique and had boasted that he could deliver even the most difficult baby alive.

"Mauriceau a doyen of French obstetrics went along and found a dwarf who had rickets, a totally deformed pelvis, a huge baby and had been in labour for 10 days. She died and the baby died.

"Chamberlen was very cross about being given this case and so he asked Mauriceau if he could have a copy of his book on obstetrics. He was given one and took in back to England and translated it as 'The Accomplished Midwife' and got a fortune from selling the book'.

Other exhibits include the vacuum extractor. Originally used in the 1740's by a naval captain, it was reintroduced a hundred years later by renowned Scottish obstetrician James Simpson and then again in the 1960s.

Skull perforators
Skull perforators

Professor Chamberlain explained that James Simpson was also the first to use ether and then chloroform as a means of pain relief during labour.

"He wrote up what he had done and the church were down about his ears saying it was correct that there was pain. They came down like a tonne of bricks upon him until Queen Victoria used it during the birth of her second to last child Beatrice and said that it was great."

Although the college is not normally open to the public Mr Fergusson said he would be happy to show people around if they wished to ring and make an appointment. For more information on the museum please contact museum@rcog.org.uk

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