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The Gynaecologist Society

The Jack the Ripper A-Z says that Dr John Rees Gabe was a gynaecologist.  On the Casebook forum, Simon Wood has said that Gabe was 'not a gynaecologist'.  When I asked him why he said that, he referred me to Gabe's entry in the postal directories of the period, such as below, taken from the 1888 postal directory, this one showing him at 16 Mecklenburgh Square:

Postal Directory 1888.jpg

The fact that Gabe is described only as 'M.D. Surgeon' in his postal directory entries, and those entries say nothing about him being a gynaecologist, means for Wood that he was not a gynaecologist (because, in Wood's exact words, 'he never hung out his qualification on his shingle').

However, we know that Gabe was a founding Fellow of the British Gynaecological Society, "BGS", founded in 1884.  Speaking at a meeting of the Fellows on 9 February 1887, Dr Fitzgerald referred to the BGS as 'this Society of Gynaecologists' (British Gynaecological Journal, vol 3).

The first president of the BGS, Alfred Meadows, when addressing the Fellows at first inaugural meeting of the society in March 1885, referred to those in the room as 'we gynaecologists', assuming that the Fellows were all gynaecologists; a reasonable assumption one might say. 

What about Alfred Meadows?  Surely he was a gynaecologist?  In fact, the great Ornella Moscucci, renowned author of The Science of Woman: Gynaecology and Gender in England 1800-1929, describes Meadows as one of four 'well-known and respected gynaecologists' who, in December 1884, were fighting to become the first president of the BGS.

What does the postal directory say about Alfred Meadows?

Here is the 1884 directory, showing him living at 27 George Street:

1884 postal directories.jpg

Just a physician.  Not a gynaecologist then?  And subsequent directories for later years all say the same.

What about Robert Lawson Tait from Birmingham, the second President of the BGS, described as 'the well-known gynaecologist' by both the Yorkshire Herald of 6 February 1892 and the London Evening Standard of 4 May 1894? Here is Tait's entry in Kelly's Directory of Birmingham of 1890:

Kelly Directory of Birmingham 1890.jpg

Just 'F.R.C.S. consulting surgeon'.  That's all you get for this well-known gynaecologist.

The third president of the BGS was Arthur Wellesely Edis in 1888.  He resided at 22 Wimpole Street and his entry in the 1888 postal directory is below:

1888 postal directory.jpg

Arthur Wellesely was a 'physician'.

The sixth president (in 1890) was Charles Henry Felix Routh who resided at 52 Montagu Square, as we can see from the 1890 Directory:

1890 postal directory.jpg

Just like Robert Ellis Dudgeon immediately below him in the directory, Routh was a mere 'physician'.

What about the ninth president of the BGS in 1893.  He was Frederick Bowermen Jessett of 1 Buckingham Mansions.  Do we find him described as a gynaecologist in the 1893 postal directory?

1893 postal directory.jpg

No, just a surgeon.

But what about Dr Protheroe Smith? Although never a president of the British Gynaecological Society, when he died at the age of 89 in 1889 he was, like Lawson Tait, described as a 'well-known gynaecologist' (Cornishman, 17 October 1889.)  According to the 1888 postal directory, when he resided at 42 Park Street he was...

1888 postal directory - Protheroe.jpg

Bah! Another physician.

I mentioned earlier that Alfred Meadows was described by Ornella Moscucci as one of the four well-known and respected gynaecologists seeking to become the first president of the BGS. She tells us that James Hobson Aveling, founder of two women's hospitals and the initiator of the Obstecrical Journal of Great Britain and Ireland, was another one of those four gynaecologists.

He resided at 1 Upper Wimpole Street.  Do we find anything informative about him in the directories?  Well no, just another physician as this example from the 1890 postal directory shows:

1890 postal direcctory - Aveling.jpg

Many more examples could be produced - the directory entries of this period never say 'gynaecologist' - but I think the point has been made. 

There was no qualification which made a physician or surgeon a gynaecologist in 1888.  Those who wrote often on the subject or taught the subject or founded women's hospitals or journals etc., such as Dr Aveling, might be described as well-known or leading gynaecologists but there were no more than a small handful of these.

Ornalla Moscussi says that during the 1880s, 'no reputable gynaecologist practised as a pure specialist, but rather considered female disease in the light of his general pathological and physiological knowledge'.

The majority of gynaecologists in the country were ordinary doctors who joined the BGS.  According to Ornella Moscucci, discussing the 280 founding Fellows of the BGS:

'It was a motley crowd in which the leaders of the gynaecological profession rubbed shoulders with humbler general practitioners, who had a direct interest in the BGS, for midwifery and gynaecology were the bread and butter of their professional life.'

This would have presumably described Dr John Rees Gabe in the period 1884-1888.  A humble general practitioner for whom gynaecology formed an important part, if not necessarily (after he started working for the SPCC in 1886) the bread and butter of his professional life.

Simply by joining the BGS he clearly had an interest in gynaecology and at the very least was a student of the subject.  There is nothing wrong in describing a founding Fellow of the BGS as a gynaecologist.  Simon Wood's claim that Dr Gabe was not a gynaecologist purely because his entry in the postal directory did not say he was a gynaecologist is, as demonstrated above, plain wrong.  

See also 'The Mysterious Dr Gabe'


First published: 5 November 2015

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