Lynn, Kathleen (1874–1955)

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Lynn, Kathleen (1874–1955)

Irish doctor and political activist. Born Kathleen Florence Lynn in Mullafany, County Mayo, Ireland, on January 28, 1874; died in Dublin, Ireland, on September 14, 1955; daughter of Reverend Robert Young Lynn and Catherine (Wynne) Lynn; educated at Alexandra College, Dublin; studied medicine at Royal University of Ireland and Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland, 1894–99; Fellow, Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland, 1909; co-founder of St. Ultan's Children's Hospital, 1919.

Kathleen Florence Lynn's father was a cleric in the Church of Ireland; on her mother's side, she was descended from the aristocratic Maxwell family. She grew up in one of the most beautiful, as well as one of the poorest, parts of Ireland which still bore the scars of the Great Famine (1845–48). Lynn was educated at Alexandra College in Dublin where she won a number of prizes and scholarships. Despite the obstacles faced by women who wished to study medicine, she was thus encouraged to pursue her ambition to become a doctor. She studied at the Royal University of Ireland and at the Royal College of Surgeons and was the most brilliant student in her class, winning in 1896 the first prize and medal in both practical anatomy and histology. Lynn graduated in 1899 but when looking for positions encountered the widespread prejudice against women doctors. At the Adelaide Hospital, the staff opposed her appointment, and she took up other short-term appointments in Dublin at the Eye and Ear Hospital, Sir Patrick Dun's, and the Rotunda maternity hospital, before commencing private practice.

Like other women of her generation—notably Helen Chevenix, Louie Bennett , and Dorothy Macardle who were all, not coincidentally, educated at Alexandra—Lynn was drawn into politics through the suffrage movement and her concern for poverty. In 1913, during the employers' lock-out of Dublin workers which brought great hardship, she helped the Irish Citizen Army which had been set up to defend the workers. At the invitation of James Connolly, the Irish Marxist labor leader who took over command of the ICA, she became involved in the women's section of the ICA and in Cumann na mBan, the women's auxiliary of the Irish Volunteers, and gave lectures in first aid and ambulance work. She subsequently became chief medical officer of the ICA and was aware of the preparations being made for a rebellion in Dublin. Connolly promoted her to captain just before the rebellion started.

On Easter Monday, 1916, Lynn reported to the outpost based at her old alma mater, the College of Surgeons. It was commanded by Michael Mallin and Countess Constance Markievicz , who was a distant relation of hers. However, the most immediate fighting took place at Dublin Castle, and Lynn tended the wounded there until the small garrison surrendered. She was taken to Kilmainham Jail and then to Mountjoy Jail before being released. Dorothy Stopford-Price , who was studying medicine in Trinity College and would later work at St. Ultan's with Lynn, was inclined to discount the stories she had heard about Lynn's involvement in the Rising: "I don't think anything was proved against her more than doctoring and bandaging Sinn Feiners. She is a very charming lady of an old fashioned type." Stopford-Price soon realized how much she had underestimated Kathleen Lynn.

In October 1917, Lynn was elected to the executive of the Sinn Fein, the political party dedicated to achieving a united Irish Republic. She spoke out strongly on the subject of equality, a message many men in Sinn Fein were reluctant to hear. In 1918, she took part in the campaign opposing the imposition of conscription in Ireland, and later that year she canvassed for Constance Markievicz, who was then in prison, when Markievicz stood as a Sinn Fein candidate in the general election. In 1920, Lynn was Sinn Fein candidate in the local elections and was elected to her local council in Dublin. When the war of independence was at its height, she sheltered people who were on the run and tended the wounded, often at great risk. She was also involved with the White Cross relief organization. In 1921, she opposed as inadequate the terms of the treaty which gave independence to Ireland and took the republican side in the civil war which broke out in June 1922. In 1923, she was elected Sinn Fein member for Dublin County in the new Irish Parliament but did not take her seat and lost it in the June 1927 election. This marked the effective end of her active political career, and after this she devoted her energies to medicine.

In 1918–19, Dublin, which already had some of the worst slums and child mortality rates in Europe, was hit by the influenza pandemic. The hospitals and dispensaries were unable to cope and Lynn, with the help of Madeleine Ffrench-Mullen whom she had known from the ICA, acquired a house in Charlemont Street, in south inner city Dublin, to look after flu victims. Lynn was overburdened at the time, but this did not inhibit her work at the new hospital. When the flu epidemic passed, it was decided to concentrate the hospital's work on children, and it was named St. Ultan's (after an Irish saint who was reputed to take special care of children). Lynn had a formidable team of doctors to help her, notably Ella Webb, Alice Barry , and Dorothy Stopford-Price.

The staff at St. Ultan's were particularly intent on teaching poor mothers the importance of hygiene and regular feeding. Tuberculosis was also a particular scourge in Ireland and thanks to the work of Dorothy Stopford-Price, St. Ultan's was the first hospital in Ireland to use the B.C.G. vaccine, in 1937–38. St. Ultan's was also the first hospital to have a Montessori ward. Kathleen Lynn had met Maria Montessori in 1934 and took a great interest in her educational methods for children.

At the end of the Second World War, Lynn and her friend Dorothy Macardle were concerned at the plight of German children, and Lynn founded the "Save the German Children" Society which worked closely with other charitable groups in England and America. She died in September 1955 and as a mark of her abiding interest in young people left the cottage in County Wicklow, given to her by Constance Markievicz, to the Irish Youth Hostel Association, An Oige.


Alexandra College Magazine.

O Broin, Leon. Protestant Nationalists in Revolutionary Ireland: The Stopford Connection.

Smyth, Hazel P. "Kathleen Lynn," in Dublin Historical Record. 1976–77.

Deirdre McMahon , lecturer in history at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland