Dr Cicely Williams graduated from the University of Oxford in 1923 as one of the first female medical students. She would have an illustrious career as a pioneer of maternal and child care in developing countries and a founder of tropical paediatrics.
In 1929, she identified the protein deficiency disease ‘kwashiorkor’ as a condition of severe malnutrition whilst working in the British Colonial Service on the Gold Coast (now Ghana). Williams was transferred to Malaya (now Singapore) in 1936, where she advocated utilising local resources to improve the health of the poor. Her speech in 1939 at the Singapore Rotary Club, titled ‘Milk and Murder’ initiated a worldwide campaign against sweetened condensed milk and artificial milk used as substitutes for human breast milk (a later worldwide boycott of the aggressive marketing of infant formulas by Nestlé and other manufacturers began in 1977). In 1942 she was interned by the Japanese at Singapore’s Changi Prison and held in appalling conditions for almost six months, losing a third of her body weight – but she was still pleased that the babies born there under her care survived and she had encouraged them to be breastfed. Later, in 1952, Williams returned to her native Jamaica and began research into an epidemic of Jamaican vomiting sickness, finding the ackee apple fruit responsible.
Another remarkable woman, Dr Victoria Smallpeice qualified at the Royal Free Hospital in 1928 to become a general practitioner and highly regarded paediatrician in Oxford, where she stayed for her whole life.
Her surgery was in Broad Street (now part of Blackwell’s bookshop), where she had several well-known artists on her list. During WWII, she volunteered for full-time duty with the Emergency Medical Services, serving as medical officer in charge of a 40-bed Children’s Hospital at Rycote Park near Thame in Oxfordshire and the children’s wards at the Radcliffe Infirmary. Smallpeice was appointed the first physician-in-charge and clinical director of the children’s department of United Oxford Hospitals in 1947. Then with the inception of the National Health Service (NHS) in 1948, she was nominated consultant paediatrician on the Oxford Regional Hospital Board. In 1964 she collaborated with Dr Pamela Anne Davies (1924–2009), a British consultant paediatrician, on the introduction of very early enteral feeding with human milk in preterm infants. They challenged the dogma at that time that infants should not be fed immediately after birth. Smallpeice carried on her research into her retirement, and in 1968 she published on urinary tract infection in childhood and its relevance to adult life and a joint study on the deteriorating social fabric of a village in Oxfordshire and its effect on the children’s health.
This year with the theme ‘Embrace Equity’, we are reminded of the paths forged by women health professionals and researchers in the past to make their mark in paediatrics and push us towards a more equal world.
To find out more about the history of paediatrics in Oxford visit our 50th Anniversary page