Dr Percival Willoughby

Observations on Midwifery

Dr Percival Willoughby was an unusual medic of his time because of the way that he viewed obstetrics and the treatment of women; a revolutionary “male-midwife” who was one of the first of his kind and went out of his way to see patients and change the profession in radical new ways. He was born at Woollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire in 1596 and, despite his position as the youngest son among ten other siblings and the families lack of wealth, he was given great access to education to help him succeed in his career – first at Eton and later at Oxford. There has been much speculation in later forewords and biographies about his exact medical qualifications and positions across the country but there is no doubting his influence on modern midwifery.

Blue plaque of pioneer in midwifery Dr Percival Willoughby

Blue plaque of pioneer in midwifery Dr Percival Willoughby

Dr Percival Willoughby’s life and career in London and Derby.
Following his graduation from Oxford with a BA in 1620, Willoughby went to London to continue his education under the instruction of a top surgeon. What should have been a ten year commitment was sadly cut short in 1624 when his new master died and Willoughby decided to return to Derby to begin his own practice with a focus on obstetrics, one that offered equal attention to the rich wives of the county and the poorer, more unfortunate mothers. In 1631 he married Elizabeth Coke and started a family of five children, who he would later relocate back to London for better access to education. This period in London was short-lived but it was notable for the work which was, as he would put it in his own words, largely involving a “meaner” kind of woman and provided him with plenty of new challenges that confirmed his views about the current state of midwifery. Interestingly, despite his practice and achievements, it was not until 1640 that he was admitted into the Royal College of Physicians as an Extra Licentiate.

‘Observations on Midwifery’ and the importance of Willoughby’s work.
When Willoughby returned to Dr Percival Willoughbyhis Derby practice after his time in London, he continued to made his name as an devoted and knowledgeable “male midwife” for the local community. He worked with a strong desire to see midwives taking a less invasive and dangerous role in childbirth and encouraged them to trust in the potential of a natural birth so that lives could be saved. One of his daughters would later follow in his footsteps and become a midwife herself and there are unsubstantiated claims his son aided his work after his own education and training. In the 1670s he brought together a series of around 150 case studies into a written collection that would later be known as ‘Observations in Midwifery’. The book aimed to show other midwives and professionals the difficulties that he had faced during his career due to insufficient, outdated techniques while also providing solutions to the problems. His experience was clear, and he was keen to show the fatal errors of other peoples work, but it was a long time until people got to read about it.

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Dr Percival Willoughby’s on-going influence after his death.
Unfortunately, the full impact of this work could not be fully appreciated by the man himself because the book was not made available until long after his death. Percival died aged eighty-nine in Derby in 1685 but the case studies were not fully published until 1863 and at the time were only available in a limited run of 100 copies, 17 of which were sold. Two copies of this original 600-page manuscript remain and one was put up for auction in 2012 with an impressive guide price of twenty to thirty thousand pounds. The piece has become a valuable collectable and its preservation is valued as much for the words of advice as the rare seventeenth century handwriting.

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Willoughby was buried with his wife at St Peter’s Church in Derby and his home city have recently unveiled a blue plaque in his honour at the Derby Registrar Office. There is no doubt that this revolutionary doctor helped hundreds of women in his lifetime and is responsible for helping thousands more because of his teachings; however, you have to question what would have happened if his ideas had been made more readily available around the time they were written instead of two centuries later.