Librarian Elizabeth Graham reveals how a new acquisition for the Library collections turned out to have a connection with the former Wellcome Historical Medical Museum.
Dr Helen MacMurchy was a distinguished but controversial figure: a pioneering reformer of public health, particularly maternal and infant health – and a prominent promoter of eugenics. She was also Director of the Division of Child Welfare in Canada.
probably the most important woman dr. in the world
During the 1920s she authored a series of “Little Blue Books”, published by the Canadian Department of Health and widely circulated, offering advice on childcare and on the building and running of healthy, happy Canadian homes.
The most popular was the Canadian Mother’s Book. From the beginning, it sets a tone of patriotic duty: “This book has been written for you – a Canadian Mother. The Government of Canada, knowing that the nation is made of homes, and that homes are made by the Father and Mother, recognises you as one of the Makers of Canada. No National Service is greater or better than the work of the Mother in her own home. The Mother is ‘The First Servant of the State’.”
In August 1920, Helen MacMurchy wrote from the Canadian Department of Health to Burroughs Wellcome & Co. asking for “pictures, either ancient or modern, illustrating aspects of child welfare”. The correspondence has been preserved in the archive of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum (WA/HMM/CO/Ear/550).
Her letter continues: “Among these I would mention Beauty and Value of Child Life, the heroism of mothers, the burden of motherhood, (some of which at least ought to be prevented,) and the immeasurable benefits and absolute necessity of nursing by mothers.” It concludes: “…I have never forgotten when I visited your head office some years ago the kindness of your staff to me and the valuable assistance which they gave me.”
This prompted a reply from Burroughs Wellcome & Co. which begins: “We have a lively recollection of your call at this office when you were in London some years ago, and remember the interesting details you gave us with regard to your work in Canada. You will remember you were also good enough to send us some publications of your department after your return, the receipt of which was very much appreciated.”
The request for illustrations was referred to the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum (WHMM). A handwritten comment on the archive copy of the letter notes: “This is a most important dr. for us… probably the most important woman dr. in the world”.
On 14 October, a correspondent from WHMM wrote: “Unfortunately I cannot recall anything illustrating the beauty of child life or the heroism of mothers. These do not come within our scope. I may mention, however, that we have a very interesting and fine collection of parturition chairs… and also of gynaecological instruments tracing their evolution back several centuries.”
Although many thousands of copies of the ‘Little Blue Books’ were distributed, it seems that relatively few have made their way into library collections, and most of the surviving copies are in Canada.
Sadly, there is now no trace of the original publications that Helen MacMurchy donated to Burroughs Wellcome & Co. However, earlier this year I had the opportunity to acquire a set of the Little Blue Books for the Wellcome Library. Our collecting remit has changed over the years: mother and child welfare are certainly in scope now, and the ‘Little Blue Books’ make a valuable addition to our collections.
Author: Elizabeth Graham is Contemporary Printed Research Collections Librarian at the Wellcome Library.
Find out more
Dodd, Dianne. Advice to Parents: The Blue Books, Helen MacMurchy, MD, and the Federal Department of Health, 1920-34.Canadian Bulletin of Medical History 1991; 8(2): 203-230.
Fielding, Lee-Ann. Advice literature for monthers in English Canada in the interwar period. Thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in History (M.A.). 2004. Chapter Four: The Canadian Mother’s Book and the Little Blue Books.
Helen MacMurchy’s letters to Marie Stopes are preserved in the British Library. The romantic attachment between the two women is described by Ruth Hall in: Marie Stopes: A biography. 1977. Chapter Five: 78-80.