Protheroe Smith (1809-89).

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.

Chris Trigger.


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4 Responses to Protheroe Smith (1809-89).

  1. Caroline Osborne says:

    Thank you for this article…
    I’m currently studying for a PhD Biography researching the life and work of Dr Protheroe Smith and his Hospital for Women – I came to him via family history as a great, great, great grandmother died in the Hospital. I think it is time for an in depth look at his contribution to women’s medicine and would be very grateful to hear from anyone who has any information they can share – especially Ruth Protheroe Partridge! Is it the Winterhalter painting that you have?

  2. David Castle-Smith says:

    Loved the article. Protheroe was my great great grandfather’s brother. His name was William Castle Smith b1811. He went on to be HM commissioner of Land and Forest revennues.
    I was curious to see you list him as one of twenty, I only know of twelve, could you give me any more information.

    Thank you

  3. Ruth Partridge says:

    Wow I loved reading your account and it filled in a few early gaps . I did not know that he was one of 20 . You might like to know that we hold his most treasured painting of the hospital for women . He certainly forged a way in modern medicine and I am extremely proud to bear his name.

    Ruth Protheroe Partridge (me(
    Mary Protheroe Spencer nee Smith nurse
    Ernest Heywood Protheroe Smith GP Topsham
    Edward Protheroe Smith – doctor
    Heywood Smith doctor ( worked with is father )
    Protheroe Smith doctor
    He deserves better recognition

  4. Tom Wiersma says:

    Great to read this. Bideford is often laughed at (French & Saunders for a start) but what local man Protheroe Smith did for women and medicine needs to be celebrated!

    There has been a suggestion that his birthplace needs a Blue Plaque. I agree!

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