History of the RSM

Feature of the month - February

Percival Willughby

Percival Willughby was born in 1596 at Wollaton Hall in Nottinghamshire. He was admitted as an Extra-Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians of London in 1640.

After practising in Derby, Stafford, and London, he returned to Derby in 1659 and built up his extensive midwifery practice. He died in 1685, aged 89.

He left no published works in his own lifetime, but by 1670 he had recorded in writing 150 case histories illustrating the problems and challenges he had encountered when called upon to assist at difficult births, or at deliveries made complicated by the inexperience or inefficiency of the midwife.

He was scathing of those midwives he considered to be over officious and advocated a greater trust in nature to take its course with minimal obstetric intervention.

Willughby drew on his experiences to produce a further manuscript work, The country midwife's opusculum or vade mecum, showing the ways how to deliver any difficult birth, be it natural or unnatural, intended as a handbook for midwives.

Willughby’s Observations existed in several manuscript copies and gained considerable renown among those fortunate enough to have read it.

In a letter dated March 23rd 1845 to The Provincial Medical Journal, Dr Henry Blenkinsop refers to “a curious manuscript in my possession” entitled “Observations in midwifery by Percy Willughby, Gentleman” and quotes two of Willughby’s cases including that of Emma Toplace who gave birth in a coffin after her premature interment.

In 1848 it was announced that “H. Blenkinsop, esq, surgeon, now mayor of Warwick…intends publishing the whole by subscription, limiting the impressions to a small number.” The announcement ends with an assurance that “The writings of Willughby are quite practical.”

This limited edition of 100 copies did not appear for another 15 years, delayed, in Blenkinsop’s words, by “repeated attacks of illness in the last two years.”

The RSM Library holds a copy of Blenkinsop’s edition as well as Blenkinsop’s own copy of Willughby’s original manuscript, given to the Royal Medico-Chirurgical Society in 1881 by J.H. Aveling.

Bibliography

Percivall Willughby
Observations in midwifery.
c.1670
Royal Society of Medicine Library. Manuscript MSS. 296

Percivall Willughby
The countrey midwife's opusculum or vade mecum, shewing the wayes how to deliver any difficult birth, bee it natural or unnaturall.
c.1670
Royal Society of Medicine Library. Manuscript MSS. 296

Observations in midwifery : as also The country midwifes opusculum or vade mecum / by Percivall Willughby ... ; edited from the original MS, by Henry Blenkinsop ...
Warwick : H.T. Cooke and Son, 1863.

Observations in midwifery : as also The country midwifes opusculum or vade mecum / by Percivall Willughby ... ; edited from the original MS, by Henry Blenkinsop ...
Warwick : H.T. Cooke and Son, 1863. With a new introduction by John L. Thornton, FLA.
East Ardsley: SR Publishers, 1972.

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