‘Now before I quit Calais,’ a travel-writer would say, ‘it would not be amiss to give some account of it.’–Now I think it very much amiss–that a man cannot go quietly through a town, and let it alone, when it does not meddle with him, but that he must be turning about and drawing his pen at every kennel he crosses over

October 25, 2013 § Leave a comment


In the seventeenth century, childbirth rituals were usually female, overseen by the midwife and various female friends, relatives and servants. In the eighteenth century, however, male surgeons took over the bulk of the practice. This shift was not without controversy. Female midwives like Elizabeth Nihell lobbed vitriolic attacks at male midwives—and on the birthing machine’s creator—for releasing “swarms” of male midwives into practice at the “expense of humanity” and decency. Already an experienced practitioner, Smellie studied the methods of French instructor Gregoire the Younger, but disappointment led him to develop new and better instruments (like augmented forceps) and a better way to practice their use: the Labour Device, or mechanical woman. Smellie wanted to use a device that would render the internal machinery of the female body distinct, while allowing his pupils to get a feel for delivery without endangering the living subject. The machine became the patient in the medical theater, one of the most unusual of the eighteenth century’s collection of mechanical automations.

An apparent ‘mechanical genius,’ Smellie contrived devices that earned him the awe of his students and even of his detractors. One of Smellie’s pupils writes:

[Dr. Smellie was] An uncommon Genius in all sorts of mechanicks, which after having shewed itself in many other Improvements he manifested in the machines which he has contrived for teaching the Art of Midwifery. Machines which Dr. Desaguliers, who frequently visited him, allowed to be infinitely preferable to all that he had ever seen of the same kind, and which I (from having seen those that are used at Paris) will aver to be by far the best that were ever invented.

This “apparatus” allowed Smellie to “perform and demonstrate all the different kinds of Delivery with more Deliberation, Perspicuity and Fulness than can be expected on real Subjects.” It differed from other mechanical obstetrical devices, which were “no other than a piece of basket-work, containing a real pelvis covered with black leather, upon which he could not clearly explain the difficulties that occur in turning children.” Being “little satisfied” with this method of instruction, Smellie resolved to create “machines which should so exactly imitate real women and children as to exhibit to the learner all the difficulties that happen in midwifery,” and he refers to his creative trials as his “labours”—a strange birth story in itself.

That Smellie was successful is evident from the notes of students and collections of advertisements—as well as from the attacks he weathered. In A Treatise on the Art of Midwifery, Nihell refers to the device as “his automaton or machine,”
[a wooden statue], representing a woman with child, whose belly was of leather, in which a bladder full, perhaps, of small beer, represented the uterus. This bladder was stopped with a cork, to which was fastened a string of packthread to tap it, occasionally, and demonstrate in a palpable manner the flowing of the red-colored waters. In short, in the middle of the bladder was a wax-doll, to which were given various positions.

From this benign and even laudatory presentation of the “ingenious piece of machinery,” Nihell proceeds to question its functionality. She asks if students can really learn an appreciation of the tender parts of a woman from a doll that does not feel, does not speak. What disturbs Elizabeth Nihell is not the mechanics, but the fact that it approximates the body so nearly, yet without sensation. Smellie’s greatest critics seem most appalled by the machine’s incredible approximation to the true body in labor. It is—to put it another way—too much like the real thing.  read more


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