The Edinburgh Obstetrical Society

Welcome to the Edinburgh Obstetrical Society

The Edinburgh Obstetrical Society is the oldest obstetrical society in the English speaking world, established in 1840.

About the Society.

We meet six time a year and also hold a joint annual dinner with another ancient society, "Glasgow Obstetrical and Gynaecological".

A Brief Early History of the Edinburgh Obstetrical Society

The year 1840 was especially significant in the history of our specialty. That year saw the foundation of the Edinburgh Obstetrical Society and the appointment, shortly before his 29th birthday, of James ('Young') Simpson to the Edinburgh Chair of Midwifery, unquestionably the pre-eminent figure in the history of Edinburgh obstetrics.

The first President of the Society was Dr William Beilby who served for the years 1840 and 1841. The joint Vice Presidents for those years were Simpson and Dr Alex Zeigler. Through almost all of the 177 years of its history the normal presidential term has been two years but Simpson succeeded Bielby in 1842 and continued as President for the next 16 years! Not content with that he served again in 1866 and 1867 just three years before his death.

Many notable figures in Scottish obstetrics occupied the President's chair during the first hundred years.These include Mattews Duncan, Charles Bell, John Burn, Sir Alexander Russell Simpson (JYS' s nephew), Sir John Halliday Croom, Robert Milne Murray and Haig Ferguson (both designers of forceps), JWBallantyne  (credited with introducing antenatal care) and Berry Hart. Hart published an account of a caesarean delivery in Edinburgh in 1888 in the same issue of the British Medical Journal as Murdoch Cameron described the first of his renowned series of elective classical sections on rachitic dwarves in Glasgow. Hart' s case was in fact  a caesarean hysterectomy (Porro's  operation) and included removal of the ovaries which was thought to reduce the risk of further osteomalacia!

Not all the Presidents were from the east of Scotland and their home  bases indicated that the Society enjoyed Scotland wide support.

A prominent feature of the Society was the award of Honorary Fellowship to distinguished obstetricians from across the globe, a practice which has not survived into the 21st century. The list reads like a world Who'sWho of our specialty: Couvelaire of Paris, Thomas Cullen and Howard Kelly of Baltimore, Doderlein of Munich,  Kinoshito of Tokyo, Munro Kerr of Glasgow, Joseph Bolivar de Lee of Chicago, William Smyly of Dublin, Stroganoff of Leningrad, Doyen (of the retractor), Pinard (of the stethoscope) both of Paris and many more.  Honorary Fellowship of the Society was clearly a highly prized distinction. There was also a category of 'Corresponding Fellows' from all around the world.

The 'Transactions' of the Society were published in bound volumes until 1938. These show that up till that year 733 Fellows had been elected. (The 1938 volume lists a current total of 315 Fellows: honorary, corresponding, life members and ordinary fellows.) Clearly the Society was important in the life of the obstetric community.

Many of the proceedings recorded in the 'Transactions' are highly significant descriptions of innovations and case studies. The last published volume contains a ten page description (followed by six pages of discussion among fellows) of 'Postpartum necrosis of the anterior pituitary' by Harold Sheehan, Pathologist to Glasgow Royal Maternity Hospital. The condition, which usually came to light when lactation failed, is happily rarely seen nowadays in first world countries. It is now known as Sheehan' s syndrome.

These lines represent an all too superficial account of the first hundred years of the Society. The 'Transactions' covering the years 1905-1938  are currently retained in the Simpson Centre for Reproductive Health in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and I would encourage Fellows of the Society to dip into them and enjoy a taste of Edinburgh obstetrics in bygone years. It has amused me to observe however that in many of the volumes most of the pages have not been cut. These have obviously (and sadly) never been read since they need to be prised open with a sharp knife. Perhaps their fascinating contents will receive the attention they deserve during the decades and centuries to come.

By Professor Andrew Calder

Next meeting

Next meeting will be on Wednesday 5 February, 2020


Forth/Carlton Rooms, Apex Waterloo Hotel, 23-27 Waterloo Place, Edinburgh EH1 3BH


Find out how to become a member and to attend our regular meetings which will inform and allow you to network with many key people in this field.

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