Dead Ringers: Did British Doctors Murder Pregnant Women For Science?


Who would commission the murders of dozens of pregnant women, to mutilate their corpses for science? 250 years ago, Britain’s original obstetricians – William Hunter and William Smellie – may have given Jack The Ripper some stiff competition.

A new article published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (JRSM) casts doubt on the methods of the men British scientists hail as the forefathers of modern obstetrics. Researcher Don Shelton believes that the two doctors murdered women to advance their research into pregnancy and its effects on the human body.

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.

Since Hunter and Smellie are well respected leaders in the field of obstetrics, whose work and research paved the way for many of techniques still in use today, the scientific community is moderately scandalized by Shelton’s conclusion. Many dispute the possibility, while acknowledging that it is possible that the women used for research weren’t exactly willing participants. However, as Shelton points out:

The London of Hunter and Smellie’s time was unhealthy and semi-anarchic, and early death from disease was widespread, as was grave robbing. 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.

This isn’t the first time horrific practices have been employed in the name of furthering medicine. The Tuskegee Syphilis experiment allowed 600 black men =to languish untreated with the disease for forty years, specifically to track results. The Nuremberg Code, established after the Nuremberg trials, created research standards and ethics for human experimentation in the wake of the gruesome acts of torture masquerading as scientific experiments by people like Josef Mengele. In a sense, the potential actions of Hunter and Smellie are in keeping with a long history of scientific zeal overshadowing ethical considerations.

However, as another scholar pointed out, “This is an exciting and controversial area of historical investigation, and it invites more meticulous research and judicious research.” And indeed, the mysteries that lie behind historical achievements are not easily revealed.

Founders of British obstetrics ‘were callous murderers’ [The Guardian]
Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment [CDC]
Nuremberg Code [Wikipedia]

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin