Founders of British obstetrics 'were callous murderers'

Historians in the News

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.

But were they also serial killers? New research published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (JRSM) claims that they were. A detailed historical study accuses the doctors of soliciting the killing of dozens of women, many in the latter stages of pregnancy, to dissect their corpses.

"Smellie and Hunter were responsible for a series of 18th-century 'burking' murders of pregnant women, with a death total greater than the combined murders committed by Burke and Hare and Jack the Ripper," writes Don Shelton, a historian. "Burking" involved murdering people to order, usually for medical research.

According to Shelton, the two men were between them responsible for the murders of 35-40 pregnant women and their unborn children. Acting separately, and using henchmen to deliver their supply, they organised a killing spree in London between 1749 and 1755 and, after a period of inactivity enforced by mounting suspicion about the source of their corpses, resumed between 1764 and 1774. Motivated by ego, personal rivalry and a shared desire to benefit from being acclaimed as the foremost childbirth doctors of their time, Hunter and Smellie sacrificed life after life in their quests to study pregnancy's physical effects and to develop new techniques, the author says. "Although it sounds absolutely incredible, the circumstantial literary evidence suggests they were most likely competing with each other in experimenting with secret caesarean sections on unconscious, or freshly murdered, victims, with a view to extracting and reviving the babies," Shelton told the Observer....

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Don Shelton - 3/29/2010

Thank you for your interest in my JRSM paper. That paper only presents the prima facie case for murders to order.
For anyone seeking more evidence, there are many pages of supporting contemporary evidence in my biography of Sir Anthony Carlisle, "The Real Mr Frankenstein", which is available at
Carlisle was a fascinating man who deserves to be better known, but has been overlooked by historians until now.