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Mary Cunningham: Pioneering Health Visitor

Mary Cunningham: Pioneering Health Visitor
Mary Cunningham: Pioneering Health Visitor
In 1978 a photograph album of over 100 images belonging to Miss Mary Morag Bird Cunningham was donated to Edinburgh Libraries following her death. In it is a fascinating pictorial account of Mary's career as a nurse and pioneer health visitor in Edinburgh from 1911 to the late 1930s.

Mary was born into an affluent middle class Edinburgh family in 1888. Her father Peter Maxton Cunningham was a stockbroker and life for Sarah, her mother, was eased by the inclusion of a general servant and child nurse in the household. Perhaps this is where Mary got the idea to pursue nursing as in 1911 she enrolled as a nurse trainee at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary (RIE). The album shows her working in a variety of departments in the RIE including the Male and Female Surgical; Skin; Ear and Throat wards. When her four years of training were finished the nurse's register recorded that she was "A quiet, gentle and kindly nurse... she made an excellent special nurse".

Perhaps inspired by this praise Mary only lasted another month at the RIE, before transferring to the Royal Edinburgh Maternity Hospital (REMH) in 1915 to train as a midwife. Again the album has a wonderful collection of photographs of the doctors and nurses interacting with the babies in the hospital.

It is likely that Mary left the REMH in 1917 to become a private children's nurse. The album contains pictures of her at a home in Regent Terrace. Most likely Mary was working for the Rev. James Gillan who lived at 4 Regent Terrace. This job did not last long however as within 6 months she embarked on a pioneering career change. In July 1917 Edinburgh introduced an extensive Child Welfare Scheme whose aim was to oversee the health of every child in the city - recording data on every infant up to the age of four. Part of the driving force for the scheme was the necessity to keep babies alive and well in the face of the huge casualties being inflicted by World War One - "The country has need of every baby born this year and the next year and many years to come".

To implement this scheme ten women were hired as the first professional health visitors in Edinburgh and Mary became one of these pioneers. The Maternity and Child Welfare Department chose women for the job who had "tact, patience and good sense" as well as being trained nurses. They managed a team of 300 voluntary helpers and between them began to set up a network of new facilities including five dispensaries; nine infant health centres; nine antenatal centres; a convalescent home; playcentres; and kindergardens. Mary's album contains pictures of child health clinics at Portobello and Prestonfield in which she worked monitoring and supporting child health.

She also ran mothercraft classes, teaching women how to care for their babies. 313 women attended mothercraft classes in 1936 when we have Mary pictured attending a picnic in Spylaw Park with them. The establishment of the health visiting system had a dramatic affect of infant mortality in the city with 546 deaths in 1917 dropping to 189 by only 1920 and down to 34 by 1950.

Mary died in Morningside at the age of 89 after continuing to work as a health visitor long after World War Two.