Tackling infant mortality: the women behind the numbers

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According to the Medical Officer of Health (MOH) report from the London County Council for the year 1900, 158 babies out of every 1000 died before the age of one. As a result of such statistics, local authorities began to take a more active role in mother and baby health care during the early 20th century. This in turn lead to greater opportunities for women to enter the male dominated world of the Medical Officer of Health, largely as sanitary inspectors and health visitors.

In Tottenham ‘school for mothers’ operated in 1913 under the leadership of Mrs Jessie Kent-Parsons (1882?- 1966).  She worked as part of the MOH team, with the title ‘Female Sanitary Inspector’. Mrs Kent-Parsons was supported by one of the few female doctors, Dr Sophia Seekings (1873-1954), an Assistant MOH. The clinic appears to have had the desired effect – by 1921 the infant mortality rate was down to 67.9 per 1000. The MOH report for that year includes interesting details on Maternity and Child Welfare in Tottenham.

The MOH report for Croydon in 1914 describes a new Infant and Children Centre. Dr N. W. Kennedy, assistant MOH, and an unnamed health visitor were appointed to run it. The Centre dealt with minor aliments as well as advising mothers on child rearing.

Doctor from Infant Centre Croydon 1914

The new Infant Centre in Croydon, with possibly Dr Kennedy at her desk. MOH report for Croydon 1914

In some districts volunteers helped with weighing babies and giving advice to mothers.  The MOH report for East Ham  in 1914 describes the work at the Infant Clinic in Wakefield Street. The work is led by the ‘Lady Health Visitor’, Miss Kerr assisted by a group of female volunteers.

It is probably significant that, in many cases, the driving force behind these clinics was female public health workers. The introduction of women to the workforce may have helped shift the opinions of some of the male Medical Officers of Health.

For instance, Henry Kenwood the MOH for Stoke Newington cites the ignorance and selfishness of mothers as factors contributing to infant deaths. In his 1904 report, Dr Kenwood writes:

When the baby comes she is too weak or too much occupied with work to suckle it, and often too selfish. The majority  of these mothers have no knowledge of how to feed the child  artificially, and their ignorance and neglect is mainly responsible for our high preventable infantile mortality.

By 1911 Stoke Newington had appointed a full-time paid female health worker, Miss Aldridge. In the 1911 report Dr Kenwood’s views have softened:

Maybe this was Dr Kenwood’s own realisation or maybe he was reporting back on the observations of his new health visitor, Miss Aldridge. Either way the infant mortality rate in Stoke Newington dropped from 133 per 1000 in 1905 to 53 per 1000 in 1921.

The digitised MOH reports in the London’s Pulse online resource now make it much easier to uncover the stories behind the statistics.

Author: Sue Davies is External Projects Officer at the Wellcome Library.

The medical officer of health reports for London, from 1848-1972, are freely available online (with full-text searching) via the London’s Pulse website and in the Wellcome Library catalogue.

Sue Davies

Sue Davies is External Projects Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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