The Obstetric Tables, discussed in this post, contain medical imagery which reflects the medical and visual culture of the era in which it was created.
Flap-books, many of us cheerfully reminded of childhood wonder and discovery: ‘is the playful dog hidden under the rug, or peeking out from a basket?‘. For many they herald a first encounter with the printed book, yet we may not relate them to historical medical scholarship.
At the cusp of the Georgian era, artist and male midwife George Spratt published his first edition of Obstetric Tables; a unique guide for students of midwifery. With an artist’s creative vision, Spratt devised colourful and intricate mobile flaps to give students a layer-by-layer demonstration of pregnancy and common medical interventions.
The print held within the University’s Special Collections is the subject of Rebecca’s article published in this February’s issue of British Arts Studies.
The beginnings of a collaborative project
Rebecca’s research with the Medical Archives held at The John Rylands Research Institute and Library has been generously supported by Dr David Shreeve. The Research Institute were instrumental in connecting Rebecca with specialists across conservation and imaging, enabling Rebecca to share discoveries with a wide audience.
Making Obstetric Tables accessible
Rebecca had to think creatively about how she could communicate the tactile aspects of the book to remote audiences: what might the illustrations evoke for viewers of today? Before imaging could take place, the book’s condition had to be assessed.
At the Rylands, conservation specialists Elaine Sheldon and Janay Laudat were tasked with the challenge of assessing Obstetric Tables: could it safely be displayed, handled and digitised without causing damage to the delicate illustrations? They evaluated the materials, mechanism, inks and paper. Eager to hear their experience studying the work’s material qualities, we reached out to them.
Janay Laudat writes:
Some of the illustrations have a delicate layer of transparent tissue hinged underneath the printed paper flaps, possibly used to illustrate an amniotic sac or protect hand colouring on the paper beneath. This use of delicate transparent tissue and moving parts lies in contrast to many of the graphic and often forceful images, such as the use of forceps. As I peeled back layers of the flaps and tissue, it reminded me of peeling away skin. This added to a sense of intimacy with the book while also being unsettling.
With the good news that Obstetric Tables was stable for imaging, Rebecca could progress with making the volumes accessible to wider audiences. Gwen Riley Jones, manager of the experienced Imaging Team at the Rylands, facilitated a comprehensive digitisation of the work with each page and flap expertly photographed and compiled into a digital copy, available to discover at Manchester Digital Collections. To demonstrate the mobility of the illustrations, a series of video clips was also produced, accessible to the interested public and researchers alike.
Designing a facsimile
While the fantastic work of the Imaging Team enabled remote audiences to get a real impression of the book’s mobile illustrations, Rebecca hoped she could find a way to recreate the immersive experience connected to Spratt’s use of materials in his book, particularly those imitating human body tissue. What responses could this evoke today?
I reached out to designers at Hartland Design to see whether they could produce modern copies – or facsimiles – of some of the flap constructions. When I tried to make a reconstruction, I struggled to understand how the flaps had been layered and secured, but Paul’s reproductions were extremely accurate. facsimiles have allowed me to bring the physical experience of looking at Spratt’s illustrations to wider audiences, including the public at Library Collections Encounters, and audiences at talks and conferences
Paul and Sarah Hartland, Hartland Design write:
We were impressed with the intricacy and detail of the paper-based Obstetric diagrams – the publication is extremely effective and immersive. We were very keen that our reproduction should capture not just the aesthetics and feel of the original but that it should function well and help recreate the experience of looking at the original. Being able to look at the original was extremely important and helpful in terms of not only seeing the content but being able to observe paper weights and types for example. For the actual project development we worked with high-quality digitised images of the publication from the library We post-produced the supplied images; mainly tweaking them for size, alignment and colour matching and used these worked images as the basis for the reproduction artwork
Equipped with both digital and material versions of Spratt’s work, Rebecca could share her research with different audiences.
Some of the most rewarding discussions I have had about the Spratt illustrations have been with professional midwives and teachers, who can bring totally different perspectives and knowledges to these historic images. medical professionals have brought insight not only into how medical knowledge, but also medical culture has changed, and into how the teaching materials of the early nineteenth century compare to those of today.
We reached out to Dr Janette Allotey, retired Lecturer in Midwifery at the University of Manchester and Chair of De Partu, History of Childbirth Research Group, to hear her thoughts about the visual culture of midwifery, Spratt’s Obstetric Tables and modern midwifery teaching aids. She offered some fascinating stories.
Dr Janette Allotey writes:
Spratt’s tables would probably not have been seen by many traditional female midwives, with limited access to such texts. The original target readership was ostensibly male medical subscriber.
Dr Janette Allotey continues:
Strangely, the book was published at a time when female modesty was becoming a religious and cultural issue. By adding a mother’s face and scant clothing to the image, the image is transformed into a picture of a person, This image is of a woman revealing her body to the observer. What kind of a woman is depicted? Do we know if the image is based upon an actual person? Possibly a working class person or a servant…if it was based upon a real person, was she aware of this use of her portrait?
During the late twentieth century an advert was produced to advertise a ‘Beneton’ product which contained an image of a naked pregnant abdomen. It created a furore, but in a relatively short space of time, public censorship of sex and nudity was relaxed. Today, Nude scenes in general and childbirth scenes are a frequent occurrence on television, films like ‘One born every minute’ have served to ‘lift the lid’ on the mystique of childbirth.
There is a value to showing midwifery students examples of traditional texts. It allows them to consider their professional heritage and encourages their skills of reflection and interpretation. In my experience of organising a number of ‘close-up’ experiences for students with midwifery texts at JRL in the past, they are usually fascinated when they see some of them; and sometimes appalled or amused!
Concluding our tour of Rebecca’s research, you can delve into the world of nineteenth-century obstetrics and view a fully digitised copy of Spratt’s Obstetric Tables .
We have shared this research journey on International Women’s Day to celebrate Rebecca’s collaborative and inclusive approach to sharing her discoveries.