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Doctors Behaving Badly: Obstetrics pioneers may have killed for science

Doctors Behaving Badly: Obstetrics pioneers may have killed for science

Picture of William Heisel

The doctors responsible for the safe delivery of millions of babies over the past two and a half centuries may have been serial killers.

Some of the more cynical followers of Doctors Behaving Badly may not find this hard to believe, but it has caused quite a stir in Britain, where William Hunter and William Smellie created the science underlying modern day obstetrics. As Denis Campbell in the London Observer notes:

They are giants of medicine, pioneers of the care that women receive during childbirth and were the founding fathers of obstetrics. The names of William Hunter and William Smellie still inspire respect among today's doctors, more than 250 years since they made their contributions to healthcare. Such were the duo's reputations as outstanding physicians that the clienteles of their private practices included the rich and famous of mid-18th-century London.

Now historian Don Shelton, in an essay published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, accuses the physicians of hiring "burkers" to kill dozens of women at various stages of pregnancy so they could study their corpses.

Burking was named after William Burke, convicted in Ireland in 1829 of killing people so he could sell their bodies for medical experiments along with his partner William Hare. (The pair has fueled countless books and a movie coming out this year.) Hunter and Smellie were doing their deeds three quarters of a century prior to Burke, but I doubt that "Huntering" or "Smelling" will catch on.

Shelton goes so far as to say that these two were responsible for more killings than Burke, Hare and Jack the Ripper combined: between 35 and 40 pregnant women and their unborn children between 1749 and 1755 and between 1764 and 1774. They took a break after people started asking questions about the source of their anatomical specimens.

How does Shelton know this?

He pored over the notes, photos and diagrams they left behind and compared them to contemporaneous records of the leading causes of death and disease. Campbell writes:

In his JRSM paper, Shelton claims to prove that the rival doctors could not have obtained their supply of corpses by any other means than murder. It was rare for mothers-to-be to die or be murdered soon before they were due to give birth, says the historian. People from poorhouses who died were usually old, unwell or children. Thus the grave robbers of the time could not have fulfilled the obstetricians' need for such a specific type of female, concludes Shelton.

Final question: When a splashy story like this comes along, it's good to ask: "How good were the records?" Health data today can be full of holes and misleading information. Data from 250 years ago and passed down through the ages must be considered with serious caveats.


Picture of Don Shelton

Hi William,

Thank you for you interest in my JRSM paper and I note your query about the records. In case it helps, the paper is summarised from one chapter of an ebook biography of the 19C surgeon, Sir Anthony Carlisle (1768-1840), a really fascinating person for whom there has never been a previous biography.

The ebook contains many pages of supporting evidence, mainly from mid 18C and early 19C contemporary sources, specifically about 18C-19C man-midwifery, which supports the JRSM paper. The draft paper was discussed with several respected medical history authors and other experts, before being submitted to JRSM, and is well evidenced. If you have the time or inclination, the ebook presents an opportunity for for you to evaluate the evidence, and thus to see if you are also convinced!

However, there is also a lot more about Carlisle in the ebook. He was very friendly with William Godwin, father of Mary Shelley, and you may also be interested to read compelling contemporary evidence I have uncovered to show Carlisle as Mary's inspiration for Victor Frankenstein. This has not yet been picked up by the media, as  their focus has been on Smellie and Hunter. There is more about the ebook at

If you want to contact me direct, you are welcome to do so at




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