Biography, Blog

Dr Lucy Smith’s Involvement Child Welfare Work in Cork by Eugenie Hanley

Between January and May 2020, I visited the City and County Archives in Cork, Ireland, and mined through the Irish Newspaper Archive, to research the Cork Child Welfare League for my PhD thesis on maternal and infant mortality in twentieth-century Munster. Prior to this research trip, I knew relatively little about the foundations of maternity and child welfare work in Cork City and the individuals, who were instrumental in voluntary child welfare services before the inauguration of an ‘official’ Child Welfare Scheme by the late 1910s. Whilst interrogating the Child Welfare League Annual Reports, I identified several philanthropic women and female doctors who were key players in maternity and child welfare in Cork, in particular Dr Lucy Smith.

Born in circa.1870 in Middleton, Cork, Dr Lucy Eleanor Smith was the daughter of a Presbyterian clergyman and was one of the first women to graduate from Queen’s College Cork in 1898 shortly after women were granted access to medical education at British universities.[1] In Cork, women were granted access to undergraduate medical education in 1888 and 1890 which would enable them to qualify as doctors alongside men.[2] Female inclusion in medical degrees meant that they could qualify as doctors on the same basis as men, and from the 1880s, many women did so and pursued medical careers in Cork City.

Dr Lucy Smith was Cork’s first female obstetrician. From 1908, she worked as an obstetrician at the Erinville Lying-In Hospital, Cork. [3] Through this post, she became involved with early maternity and child welfare work in Cork City. Growing concerns for the high maternal and infant death rates encouraged the establishment of philanthropic organisations like the Women’s National Health Association (WNHA). In 1907, the WNHA was established by Lady Aberdeen, the wife of the Viceroy Of Ireland, to set up branches throughout Ireland to reduce the high maternal and infant mortality rates in Ireland, including the cities of Belfast, Cork, Dublin, Limerick, and Waterford. In 1908, a Cork branch of the WNHA was founded.[4] The WNHA were a non-denominational organisation, however, the Cork Women’s Health Association membership included a large number of Protestant middle-class women and female doctors, such as Dr Lucy Smith, Dr Alice Barry, and Dr Lucia Fitzgerald.[5] By the early 1910s, the Cork branch operated a dental clinic for mothers and a maternity and child welfare centre in the city, which taught ‘mother-craft’ lessons to educate new mothers on the importance of proper infant feeding methods and domestic hygiene.[6]

Greater attention was paid to increased infant mortality rates during the First World War period in Ireland. According to Walsh, the significant losses of life of soldiers at the trenches, combined with discourses related to the survival of the British empire, meant that the British government introduced legislation targeted at reducing infant deaths and improving maternal health.[7] Although the 1907 Notification of Births Act encouraged large Irish cities to introduce maternity and child welfare schemes, only Dublin and Belfast adopted it.[8] However, under the 1915 Notification of Births (Extension) Act, local health authorities in Ireland to set up maternity and child welfare centres and to provide health visitation service to expectant and nursing mothers and children under the age of five. In 1918, an official Child Welfare League was established in Cork City following a public meeting by the Lord Mayor of Cork, T.C. Butterfield.[9] Representatives from multiple charities and maternity hospitals were appointed to the committee, including Dr Lucy Smith, whom conducted the maternity and child welfare clinics at the Erinville Maternity Hospital.[10]

By examining county child welfare archival collections, we can identify overlooked women who engaged in both voluntary and official maternity and child welfare schemes throughout Ireland. Dr Lucy Smith not only played significant role in early child welfare initiatives in Cork City, but she was also interested in medical politics through her membership of the Irish Association of Women Graduates Munster branch.[11] After Ireland gained Independence from Britain in 1922, she continued to work as part of the League until her death in 1929.[12]

Eugenie Hanley is a PhD student at the School of History, University College Cork in Ireland. Her PhD topic focuses on maternal and infant mortality in twentieth-century Munster. She was awarded a PhD Excellence Scholarship by the College of Arts, Celtic Studies, and Social Sciences at UCC. She instructs history and mythology courses for Centre of Talented Youth Ireland. She is a member of the Women’s History Association of Ireland, Irish Historical Studies, and the Cork Archaeological and Historical Society.

[1] Kelly, Irish Medical Women, p. XXXII.

[2] Laura Kelly, ‘the turning point in the whole struggle’:  the admission of women to the King and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland’, Women’s History Review, Vol. 22 No.1 (Dec 2012), p.100.

[3] Kelly, Irish Medical Women, PhD Thesis, p. XXXII. From 1913, she worked as a physician at the Co. and Cork Lying-In Hospital and in 1923, she acted as visiting physician at Her Majesty’s Female Prison, Cork.

[4] ‘Women’s National Health Association’, Cork Examiner, 1st January 1908, p.6.

[5] Ibid, p.6. Dr Alice Barry, who would play a significant role alongside Dr Dorothy Stopford Price in the eradication of tuberculosis, served as the Medical officer of Health in West Cork (Margaret Ó hÓgartaigh, Kathleen Lynn: Irishwoman, Patriot, Doctor, Irish Academic Press, Dublin, 2006, p.70-1). Dr Lucia Fitzgerald worked at the Cork District Lunatic asylum (Irene Finn, ‘Women in the medical profession in Ireland 1876-1919’ in B. Whelan (ed.)  Women and Paid Work in Ireland, 1500-1930 (Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2000, p.116).

[6] Women’s and Babies’ Club: Opening Ceremony Address by Her Excellency’, Evening Echo, 28th May 1909, p.4.

[7] Fionnuala Walsh, “Evert human life is a national importance’: the impact of the First World War on attitudes to maternal and infant health” in D. Durnin and I. Miller (ed.) Health, Medicine, and Irish Experiences of Conflict, 1914-1945 (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1916), p.15.

[8] Lindsey Earner-Byrne, Mother and Child; Maternity and Child Welfare in Dublin, 1922-60 (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2007), p.10.

[9] ‘Maternity and Child Welfare’, Irish Examiner, 13th February 1918, p.4.

[10] ‘Cork Child Welfare League’, Irish Examiner, 21st November 1919, p.6.

[11] ‘Late Dr Lucy Smith’, irish Examiner, 30th March 1929, p.7.

[12] Ibid, p.7.

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