Protheroe Smith was born in 1809 in Bridgeland Street, Bideford, the son of a doctor, William Smith, and one of twenty children. He was educated at Bideford Grammar School and was destined for a military career, but injured his hip in an athletic activity, which put paid to his career as a soldier.
He decided on a medical career instead, and in 1833 qualified as a surgeon at St. Bartholomew’ s Hospital in London. Here he was appointed Lecturer in Midwifery and Diseases of Women, one of only two such posts in Great Britain and Ireland.
At this time, gynaecology was very much in its infancy, and very definitely a Cinderella subject. Smith was only the second person ever to carry out an ovariotomy without anaesthetics (on a woman who lived another 45 years), and the first to do the same operation with anaesthetics. An argument raged at the time, as to whether anaesthetics should be used during childbirth, as the Bible appeared to forbid it. Protheroe Smith argued from the Bible itself that the use of anaesthetics was perfectly acceptable, and wrote a well-known paper on the subject. The matter was sealed however, when Queen Victoria gave birth to her eighth child, with the use of anaesthetics. He was also an enthusiastic inventor of surgical gadgetry.
However his most important achievement was the founding of the first hospital in the world specifically for women.
In those pre-NHS days, hospitals were funded by subscription, but this proved to be an unpopular cause, partly because of its original name, the Hospital for Diseases of Women, which meant only one thing to the prudish Victorians: venereal disease.
It took five years and a lot of hard work for Protheroe Smith and a committee of pioneering doctors to gain proper support and funding, but the hospital finally opened in 1843 in Red Lion Square in London, transferring soon afterwards to larger premises in Soho Square, and renamed the Hospital for Women. By 1849 it had 5,000 outpatients, with 20 beds. Once opened, interest was shown by other cities in England and the USA, and general hospitals soon had gynaecological wards where females could be treated with more privacy and dignity, and medical expertise developed for women’s diseases. Before this doctors were generally ignorant of female complaints, and simply turned women away
A later report stated: “The foundation of this, the first hospital devoted entirely to diseases peculiar to women, is a great milestone in British medicine and gynaecology and has hardly received the recognition it deserves’.
He retired from his official post at the hospital in 1885 and died in 1889, aged 80. A memorial plaque celebrating his life and work can be found on the south wall in St. Mary’s Church.
Possibly Protheroe Smith has done more for humanity than any other Bidefordian, and his story should be better known.