Among the more extraordinary pieces of the collection at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh are two small and mysterious stuffed leather dolls, delicately hand sewn and housed in boxes of new mahogany, handmade years ago specifically to hold them.
Little is known about the dolls, their origin, or how the RCPE came to acquire them, however it is safe to say they were used as obstetric teaching models, similar or identical to those used by Doctor William Smellie, one of the most prominent obstetricians of the 18th century, possibly in all of history. Over a 10 year period Smellie gave 280 courses in midwifery to over 900 students, and managed over 1000 labours1 . He was one of the developers of the obstetrical forceps, used to assist in removing the child from the mother in cases of pathology and/or difficult labour, and he demonstrated their use with female 'machines' comprising real human pelves and handcrafted surrounding anatomicae, as well as dolls to mimic the fetus in utero.
Unfortunately, there is no corresponding birthing model extant. CT scans have revealed that the dolls are stuffed with horsehair or similar material, supported by wireframes, and, most significantly, contain human neonatal craniums and mandibles likely carved of (animal) bone. Although their bodies are not anatomically accurate, the presence of a real human skull would have provided the most crucial element in demonstrating the use of forceps during labour. When used incorrectly, this tool could compromise the fetus or cause damage to the birth canal.

NOTES | 1. (Baskett, 2008, as cited in Roberts)
IMAGES | portraits of the obstetric dolls by Stef Lenk
dolls courtesy of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh