Kathleen Lynn was one of our first female medical graduates. During the course of a distinguished life, she was a medical leader, campaigning feminist and social activist, a rebel of the emerging Irish nation, a suffragette and a public representative. She had a pioneering medical career whilst taking part in Ireland’s War of Independence.
Born in Cong, Co. Mayo in 1874, this daughter of a Church of Ireland rector was greatly affected by the poverty and disease of the great famine and at the age of sixteen years old, she decided to be a doctor. She was educated in England and Germany before enrolling in the Royal University of Ireland, a forerunner to the UCD School of Medicine. Following her graduation in 1899, Dr Kathleen Lynn went to the United States where she worked for ten years before returning to Ireland to become the first female doctor at the Royal Victoria Eye & Ear Hospital (1910 – 1916).
Lynn became politically active and worked in Liberty Hall providing food and care for the poor and destitute families during the turbulent time of the 1913 Dublin Lock-Out. At the request of rebel leader James Connolly, she joined the Irish Citizen’s Army during the 1916 Rising and was appointed as Captain and Chief Medical Officer. She provided medical training to ICA recruits and was active in the smuggling of arms in preparation for the uprising. She endured spells in Kilmainham Jail for her revolutionary activities but was released in 1918 at the request of Dublin's Lord Mayor to help fight the Spanish Flu epidemic sweeping the city.
Dr Kathleen Lynn (third from left) and St Ultan's Staff meeting Lord Mayor Mr Alfie Byrne
In 1917, she became one of four women members of the national executive committee of Sinn Fein. She campaigned for Constance Markievicz in the general election of 1918 and was one of five women elected to the Dáil in 1923 but as an abstentionist in opposition to the Treaty she did not take her seat. She was a member of Rathmines Urban District Council and vice-president of the Irish Women Workers' Union.
In 1919 Lynn together with Madeleine ffrench-Mullen and a number of other politically-active medical women founded St. Ultan’s Hospital for Infants in Charlemont Street, Dublin. At that time in Dublin, infant mortality was 150 per 1,000 births and there was extensive malnutrition among the general populace. The initial focus of the hospital was on treating syphilitic infants due to the epidemic in working class Dublin at that time. Lynn brought educationalist Maria Montessori to Ireland in the 1930s and introduced a Montessori ward in the hospitals. She made a significant contribution to the eradication of tuberculosis in Ireland through a community care programme.
In 1925. Lynn and Ffrench-Mullen visited New York, the US eastern seaboard and the mid-west to study American baby hospitals and social services. In an interview with The Eugene Guard, Dr Kathleen Lynn explained.
“When we started our hospital right after the War, there was even a question as to whether babies should be save,”.
‘What is the use of trying to save babies?” we were constantly asked. ‘Why do you want to cure them just to send them out into the same conditions again?
The streets were full of undernourished children, with pinched cheeks and haggard faces. Even in the country, in the dairy districts where milk and butter were being exported, the babies were fed on skimmed mile and fared worse than babies in the city.
There was no place where babies could be taken and treated for malnutrition. There was no place where mothers could go to learn about feeding and baby hygiene.
We secured first the capital, just about the equivalent of $200 in your money, and made a down payment on some property. We secure the volunteer services of several good women doctors and good nurses. Then we worked – and worked.
Today (1925) we have a hospital with 25 beds where babies may be treated and what is practically a dispensary to teach mothers how to care for their babies at home.
We have pared down our expenses so that we can keep babies at the cost to us of about a dollar a day for care, food and medical advice. This is probably as low a figure as has been reached, for hospitals are the most expensive institutions in the world.
“We are about to buy more equipment and extend our work, and that is why we came here. We want to institute something there equivalent to your social service system here – a group of nurses and workers who will follow up the cases we treat and cure.
There is nothing of that sort in Ireland and there is no place for training the social worker. That is our next problem.
“There is no country where hospitals are so well equipped as her in America,” added Miss Ffrench-Mullen. “You can’t imagine what luxury it would be for us to have a dishwasher, such as every hospital here had, so we could save our human labour for more important considerations.
We can absorb many of our ideas but we shall have to carry them out slowly, because of lack of money. But the inspiration will carry us a long way. Since it is possible to do so much for babies, we will find a way to make this possible in Ireland, too.”
The Eugene Guard, Saturday 12th December 1925.
She continued on the National Executive Committee of Sinn Fein where she was elected as vice-president but in 1926, dismayed by the party's refusal to embrace social reform and health care, she left politics and devoted herself to children's medicine in St Ultan's, running her clinic until the spring of 1955 when she was eighty-one.
From 1916 until her death in 1955 she maintained detailed diaries chronicling her medical, political and social life. These diaries are held in the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland archive and provided source material for the 2010 documentary entitled ‘Kathleen Lynn – An Dochtúir Reabhlóideach’ by Loop Line Film and director Sé Merry Doyle. A lifelong campaigner for women’s and workers’ rights, Kathleen Lynn has been described as one of the great Irish humanitarians of the 20th Century. Her influence extended throughout Irish society with her work in hospital medicine, her fight against poverty and disease, her career as a politician and as a lifelong social revolutionary.
When she died in 1955, Dr Kathleen Lynn was buried with full military honours in recognition of her role in the 1916 Rising and her role in the War of Independence.
In December 2012, the UCD School of Medicine honoured Dr Kathleen Lynn by naming one of our lecture theatres in UCD Health Science Centre in her name.
Sources:Kathleen Lynn : Irishwoman, Patriot, Doctor by Margaret Ó hÓgartaigh (Irish Academic Press)Medb Ruane, Ten Dublin women, Dublin, 1991.Medb Ruane, 'Kathleen Lynn (1874-1955)' in Mary Cullen & Maria Luddy (eds.), Female activists: Irish women and change 1900-1960, Dublin 2001.Sinéad McCoole, No ordinary women, Dublin, 2003.Marie Mulholland, The politics and relationships of Kathleen Lynn, Dublin, 2002