The Smellie Method

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In the 18th Century, childbirth was a very iffy process, and it was not uncommon for mother and/or baby to die in the process. It was a Catch-22 situation: doctors, exclusively male at that time, were only summoned in extremely critical cases in order to protect the mother’s “modesty,” and midwives were not allowed to use instruments to aid in the birthing process.

Scottish surgeon William Smellie (1698-1763) studied obstetrics in Paris and was eager to implement a surgery-free birthing process in his native Britain. He began by offering his medical services free of charge to mothers who were willing to let his students witness the procedure. Thus, he began the first scientific study of midwifery: he was the first to describe how the infant’s head adapted to changes in birth canal and also the first to measure the fetal cranium in utero. His method of delivering breech babies, with the after-arriving head resting on the physician’s forearm, is still used today and is, in fact, called the Smellie method.

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