Womb with a view
April 17, 2010 6:41 AM   Subscribe

Eighteenth century obstetric engravings by Jan van Rymsdyk Dutch illustrator van Rymsdyk (also spelled van Riemsdyk) was working in England when he made 31 engravings for William Hunter's The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus. Recent research suggests Hunter and his fellow pioneer of obstetrics William Smellie may have been responsible for the murders of some 40 pregnant women in order to gain corpses for their anatomical research.
posted by Abiezer (18 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks for sharing this. These etchings are fantastic.

I remember reading this article about Shelton's paper around the time it was published about Hunter and Smellie being involved in the murders of pregnant women. Shelton's paper is really just speculation based on the assumptions that pregnant women didn't die of natural causes often enough, and grave robbers (usually the source of the anatomists' cadavers) wouldn't have randomly delivered enough dead pregnant women for all of Hunter and Smellie's anatomy studies. There's no evidence that they actually killed anyone or knowingly had anyone killed. Based on how things were done at the time, it is a possibility, but the case was overstated.
posted by lexicakes at 7:09 AM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

If I were a respected historian, I'd probably think twice about mentioning The Da Vinci Code or Sherlock Holmes when talking about my research.
posted by The Mouthchew at 7:13 AM on April 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

Unfortunately Shelton's article in the JRSM is behind a paywall so didn't check it out, though that's certainly a reputable journal. I'd missed the kerfuffle at the time and only became aware of it looking for a couple of supporting links for the main one on van Rymsdyk, who produced some astounding work.
posted by Abiezer at 7:23 AM on April 17, 2010

By 1755 rumours were circulating that the women in Smellie's journal had been murdered, and associates began pressing him on their origins

So it's interesting, but not exactly breaking news.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:33 AM on April 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

You can read the comments to Shelton's article for free, in the link provided by Abiezer; and in the author's own comments his leaps of logic are telling. He uses the portrayal of Smellie by Hogarth as supporting evidence of murder; firstly, he gives no evidence as to why Hogarth would have information about Smellie's purported murders; secondly, Hogarth shared the horror of dissection felt by a lot of his contemporaries, and so the dislike of anatomists - so what better than to put an anatomist on the table? It doesn't make the anatomist a murderer, it makes it a suitable irony for the dissector to be dissected.

If the logical leaps in the paper are as great as the leaps in his comments, one is sure he could have equally set out to prove that Smellie and Hunter were tap-dancing llama impersonators from Vladivostok.
posted by Coobeastie at 7:37 AM on April 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Unless they were pregnant streetwalkers dragged off by hired 'cadaver suppliers'
posted by infini at 8:05 AM on April 17, 2010

infini, did you read the article lexicakes put up? It pretty much addresses just that speculation.
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 8:08 AM on April 17, 2010

Coobeastie - Thanks for pointing that out. I'll check out those comments.
posted by lexicakes at 8:14 AM on April 17, 2010

no, bridge over the river etc, I hadn't, but I'd read some similar speculations around early anatomical dissection work in general. k, will go rtfa
posted by infini at 8:52 AM on April 17, 2010

Obviously, I'm speculating here, but so is Shelton. He makes probabilistic arguments, so I'll make one too: If same end can be achieved through subterfuge or serial murder, most people will opt for subterfuge. Dead pregnant women are rare, but mass murderers are rarer still. Of course, tall tales of body snatchers, natural and supernatural, are as common as dirt.

posted by infini at 8:57 AM on April 17, 2010

Those engravings are amazing.
posted by Mitheral at 9:02 AM on April 17, 2010

So long as we're speculating, I blame Philly sports fans
posted by Kirk Grim at 9:04 AM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I knew I recognised these pictures from somewhere.
posted by jpcooper at 11:00 AM on April 17, 2010

Reams Dick? Am I reading this name correctly?
posted by 534154414E at 11:15 AM on April 17, 2010

My sister wrote a book on the development of midwifery and obstetrics in 18th-century Britain. A couple of points from her research:

- Maternal mortality rates hovered between 2% during the period Smellie, et al were practicing. Bluntly speaking, there would have been little shortage of dead pregnant women and late-stage fetuses available for dissection, despite Shelton's claims that this was "rare."

- Relying on William Hogarth's satiric work as an objective source of fact (rather than a more complicated, mediated source of particular social, cultural, and even political prejudices toward pregnancy, women's bodies, the rise of obstetrics, etc.) is extremely problematic. As early as 1726, in his take on the Mary Toft case, Hogarth portrayed men-midwives as sex-obsessed doctors preying on vulnerable women. So Hogarth already had a dog in this fight at least a quarter of a century before his images of the 1750s that Shelton uses to suggest that Hogarth was "raising questions" about the integrity and motives of obstetricians.

- Rumors of murder and infanticide plagued Smellie, Hunter, et al. throughout their careers. It's important to see such rumors, like Hogarth's work, in their historical context. First, most of the doctors leading what was essentially a revolution in obstetrics were Scottish, at a time when the Jacobite uprisings were still fresh in everyone's minds. Additionally, all of them had been educated outside the Oxbridge system and were largely excluded from London's most powerful, elite medical circles for their entire careers. Their growing prominence threatened this old guard. Second, on the flipside of the (male, upper-class) medical elites who rejected them, there were also the (female, often working-class) traditional midwives, such as Elizabeth Nihell, who also strongly distrusted this new class of men-midwives/obstetricians (because they rightly perceived that they were being supplanted) and whose broadsides railed against the supposed unnaturalness of men attending to women in labor.

I'll check in with my sister to see if she'd like to comment specifically on Shelton's research.
posted by scody at 1:25 PM on April 17, 2010 [11 favorites]

Sheds new light on Wordsworth's famous lines (written in 1798):

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—
We murder to dissect.

posted by jamjam at 3:00 PM on April 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

The amputated legs are really upsetting to me. Was that a convention of anatomical illustration of the time?
posted by jokeefe at 3:11 PM on April 17, 2010

Bluntly speaking, there would have been little shortage of dead pregnant women and late-stage fetuses available for dissection, despite Shelton's claims that this was "rare."

Upon rereading what I wrote, I should probably clarify what I meant here, lest it sounds like I'm suggesting that medical researchers and artists somehow had their pick of endless dead pregnant women for dissection and illustration. There was certainly a scarcity of pregnant female cadavers available for research, but that's consistent with the general scarcity of cadavers (whether male or female, pregnant or not) available for research. What Shelton seems to suggest is that it was somehow highly unusual for late-term pregnant women to die -- and thus even be in the pool of potential cadavers -- in the first place. But a maternal mortality rate of 2%, combined with the massive boom in the birth rate in mid-18th century England, means that dying in childbirth (whether at full-term or in premature labor) literally happened on a daily basis -- it simply would not have required MURDER! to obtain 40 pregnant cadavers over the course of several decades of research, given that literally thousands of women died in late pregnancy and childbirth every year.

posted by scody at 4:28 PM on April 17, 2010

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