Steevens, Grissell (1653–1746)

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Steevens, Grissell (1653–1746)

Co-founder, with her brother, of Dr. Steevens's Hospital, one of the first public hospitals in Ireland. Name variations: Grizell Steevens; Grizel Steevens; Grisilda Steevens; Madam Steevens. Born Grissell Steevens in 1653, probably in England; died at Dr. Steevens's Hospital, Dublin, on March 18, 1746; daughter of Rev. John Steevens and Constance Steevens; never married; no children.

Moved as a child with her family to Ireland, where her father became rector of Athlone (1660); inherited her brother's fortune on his death (1710); surrendered most of her share of the inheritance in order to permit the fulfillment of his desire for the erection of a hospital in Dublin for the care of the sick poor; helped fund and supervise the building of Dr. Steevens's Hospital, which opened 1733; involved in the management of the institution until her death, at age 93.

In December 1710, Richard Steevens, an eminent and wealthy Dublin physician, knowing himself to be dying and wishing to set his affairs in order, consulted with his nearest living relative, his twin Grissell Steevens. According to an 18th-century account used by Cheyne Brady in his History of Steevens's Hospital:

Before making his will he inquired of his sister whether she had any thoughts of entering the matrimonial state, informing her that if such were her intention he would bequeath her his fortune without reserve, but if not, he would leave it to her for life and devise it after her decease to found a hospital for sick poor, as he had observed in the course of his practice that many of them were lost for want of medical assistance. To his great gratification, he found that his sister entered fully into his benevolent designs and encouraged him in them, by voluntarily promising never to marry, but to devote her life to the forwarding of his charitable intention with all her might.

Thus, Grissell Steevens, at age 57, found herself not only a woman of property but also one with a mission which was to occupy her for the remainder of her long life, and which for 250 years was to keep her name and legend alive in her adopted city.

The voluntary hospital movement was one of the earliest and most dynamic manifestations of 18th-century philanthropic concern. Benevolent individuals, not least physicians such as Richard Steevens, noted the total lack of any provision for the sick poor, and advocated the introduction of some form of institutional relief. While the humanitarian impulse was an important motivating factor in this development, other considerations included the self-interest of the middle and upper classes, concerned at the effect on the labor force and on society of a high death and disease rate among the poor, and the influence of the increasingly prestigious medical profession, which saw in hospitals a more efficient means of caring for the sick as well as a source of clinical material for research and teaching purposes. The process, once begun, was rapid. At the beginning of the century, Dublin had no public hospitals. In 1718, a house was opened in Cork Street "for the maimed and wounded poor"; Dr. Steevens's Hospital, opened 15 years later, was the second voluntary hospital in Dublin, and by 1750 the city had six such establishments. Women were involved in a number of these initiatives, although usually in a secondary and supportive capacity within male-run bodies. However, two of the first Dublin hospitals were founded by women, but while Mary Mercer did little more than finance the institution which bears her name, her contemporary, Steevens, played an exceptionally active part both in the establishment and in the subsequent management of her foundation.

Grissell Steevens was born in 1653, the daughter of Reverend John Steevens and Constance Steevens . John Steevens had been a cleric of the Church of England, but, having incurred the displeasure of the Cromwellian regime for his royalist views, had been forced in the early 1650s to leave his English parish and, with his wife and infant twins, Grissell and Richard, to flee to Ireland. Reverend Steevens' loyalty was rewarded after the Restoration of Charles II when in 1660 he was appointed rector of St. Mary's Church in Athlone. He was a conscientious incumbent who, unlike many other clerics of the period, lived in his parish, and his children grew up in Athlone, a prosperous and strongly Protestant town, built on the River Shannon, which served as a boundary between the fertile and largely Anglicized province of Leinster and the much poorer lands of Connacht, to which Irish opponents of Cromwell had been driven during the recent wars. Nothing is known of Grissell's childhood or early life. Whereas her brother was sent to the local grammar school and later to Trinity College, where he studied first divinity and then medicine, she was probably educated at home, perhaps by her father or mother. Constance is a shadowy figure, but she was certainly literate and was probably also a capable manager: in his will, John Steevens appointed her his "whole and sole executrix" and left to her such of his books as she wished "to reserve for her own use." In the same document, drawn up in 1682, shortly before his death, he bequeathed an equal inheritance to his two children, leaving to Richard £300 and the remainder of his books, and to Grissell £300 and a silver tankard presented to him by his parishioners.

Grissell and her mother would have had little reason to remain in Athlone after John Steevens' death. The outbreak in 1690 of the war between the forces of James II and William of Orange, in which Athlone was of major strategic importance, would surely have persuaded them to leave the town if they had not already done so. The fact that Constance, when she died some time after 1691, was buried in St. Peter's Church in Dublin suggests that she and Grissell had settled there to be near Richard, who was rapidly acquiring a considerable reputation in his profession.

Having completed his medical studies, Richard Steevens had opened a practice in Dublin in 1687. In 1692, he became one of the 14 Fellows of the College of Physicians in Ireland and in 1703 and again in 1710, the year of his death, he was elected president of the college. His practice was apparently a financially rewarding one, and in the course of his career he was able to invest in property to a value of £10,000, while accumulating over £1,700 in capital. This was the estate which in his will, dated December 14, 1710, the day before his death, he bequeathed to trustees for the use of his sister during her lifetime, and after her death "to provide one proper place or building within the City of Dublin for an hospital for maintaining and curing from time to time such sick and wounded persons whose distempers and wounds are curable."

Having assured her brother of her support for his scheme, Grissell now set about expediting it. In 1712, she submitted a petition to Queen Anne , in which she set out plans for a hospital and requested a grant of land on which to begin building. When this proved unsuccessful, she determined to undertake the enterprise herself, financing the project out of her own inheritance, with the exception of £150 per year which she reserved for her own maintenance. On July 11, 1717, she executed a deed of trust, appointing 15 trustees, to whom she transferred £2,000 from her own private fortune, with which to purchase a site and to begin the building of a hospital. These trustees included those named by her brother as trustees in his will, as well as the aged but extremely able archbishop of Dublin, William King, who now, and until his death in 1729, became one of her most active supporters. Three years later, Grissell Steevens enlisted the aid of another notable churchman when she requested that Dr. Jonathan Swift, dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral, should be appointed to the board, of which he remained a member until his death.

At the first meeting on August 14, 1717, the board of trustees addressed the question of a site for the proposed hospital. A piece of ground of about three and a half acres, "lying between the end of St. James' Street and Bow Bridge," at the edge of the city and close to some of the poorest quarters, was suggested as a suitable location; Steevens' approval was sought and obtained, and the land was purchased by the trustees from its owner, Sir Samuel Cooke, for £600. Since there were neither quays nor a bridge over the River Liffey near the site, it was necessary to open a new road and arrange a ferry to carry materials for the building across the river. Meanwhile, Thomas Burgh, one of the trustees, who was the chief architectural and engineering authority in Ireland at that time, as well as architect of the Library in Trinity College, Dublin, and of the old Custom House on Essex Quay, was asked to draw up plans for the hospital.

According to a stone plaque above the entrance gate, construction began in 1720, and King, in a letter written in August of that year, reported that "they have proceeded so far in the building as to provide timber and agree for stones and are laying out the ground and intend to lay the foundation next spring." The scheme continued to be heavily dependent on Steevens' generosity. In 1722, King wrote that she "has so far gone into her brother's project, that she has advanced £400 every year towards building the hospital." Progress was reasonably rapid until 1724, when the building was reported ready for plastering, but then delays, possibly arising from lack of money, possibly from other factors, apparently set in. Another difficulty was posed by the fact that, in the decade since Richard Steevens' death, a number of his original trustees had themselves died: in 1730, the Irish Parliament constituted a new Board of Governors, which included prominent figures in church and state as well as all of Grissell Steevens' surviving trustees. In the same year, the committee established to oversee the erection of the hospital was asked "to consider of the number of curables to be received into the House," but a year later the institution was still not open. Steevens persisted, stressing her desire that patients be admitted without further delay and the committee was asked "to fit up the House for the reception of forty persons." In March 1733, the Church of Ireland Primate Hugh Boulter, one of the recently appointed governors, reported to the Board that she had deposited with him the sum of £500, "for the subsistence of the poor that shall be received into the Hospital and providing medicines," and the governors, in thanking her for this donation, informed her that they would "with the utmost expedition" have the house ready to receive patients. In July, its imminent opening was announced to the populace and to potential patients in handbills and in advertisements in the local newspapers. Meanwhile, the Board met to draw up rules for the management and running of the hospital: patients were to be admitted by a committee, which must include a physician or surgeon, on Monday and Friday of each week; sick and wounded persons of all religions were to be admitted, provided their disease was curable and was neither venereal or infectious, and, except in the case of those suffering from "sudden and violent accidents," a certificate of poverty, signed either by one of the governors or by an officer of the applicant's own parish, was to be submitted. The daily diet for the patients was drawn up, officers and staff were appointed and their duties prescribed, and on Monday, July 23, 1733, the hospital was at last officially declared open. Eight men and two women were accepted on that day, and by the end of the month there were 22 patients in the house. During the first year of its existence, 248 patients were admitted, of whom 164 were "dismissed cured," 26 were noted as "incurable," 19 died and 39 remained "in the House under cure." In fact, the hospital was still incomplete at the time of its opening, and further additions were made as funds became available for them. In 1737, Primate Boulter had a ward of ten beds fitted up at his expense, which he maintained until his death five years later, and in 1742, following the receipt of funds from a charitable lottery, a new ward, later known as Madam Steevens's Ward, was established.

Some time before the opening of the hospital, Steevens herself had moved into a groundfloor apartment which had been set aside for her. Although then about 80 years old, she almost certainly continued to take an active interest in its affairs, although, according to the hospital historian, T.P.C. Kirkpatrick, only one instance of direct intervention is recorded: in October 1735, Owen Lewis, the second surgeon, was "at the desire of Mrs. Steevens … dismissed from the service of the Hospital" for an unspecified reason. She also continued to act as an invaluable source of financial support. The hospital was maintained by voluntary subscriptions and occasional donations and legacies: in 1728, for instance, Esther Johnson , Swift's "Stella," possibly at the instigation of the dean, left £1,000 for the maintenance of a chaplain, while Dr. Edward Worth, one of the trustees, who died in 1732, left £1,000 and his valuable library of about 4,500 volumes to the institution. However, the hospital's principal benefactor continued to be Madam Steevens herself. From July 1717, when she signed the deed which provided for its building, to Christmas 1746, she donated in all £14,791 to the foundation. In her will, dated April 15, 1740, she left the residue of her estate, following the discharge of a number of bequests to friends and servants, "to the Governors of my brother Dr. Steevens's Hospital and their successors for the use of the said hospital," and a sum of £225 was subsequently paid to the Governors.

William King">

'I would be a sin and a shame of us all, when the good woman has done so much and all that was in her power, … if we should be backward and obstruct so great and charitable a work for want of a little care and industry.

—Archbishop William King

Although in 1740 Grissell Steevens described herself as "weak and infirm in body," she lived for another six years, dying on March 18, 1746, at the age of 93 in her apartment at the hospital. In her will, she had asked to be "buried late at night in St. Peter's Church, Dublin," where her mother and brother already lay, and that her funeral should be conducted "in as private a manner as possible." However, her request to be buried in St. Peter's was for some reason disregarded, and she was instead buried on March 20 in St. James's Church. Oddly, at a governors' meeting held on that day, no mention of her death and no appreciation of her work was recorded, and it was left to one of her former employees to arrange what might be regarded as a more suitable final resting place. When the former matron and steward of the hospital, Ann Challoner , died in 1756, she left instructions that a vault should be built in the hospital chapel, in which were to be placed the bodies of herself and her family and of Madam Steevens, and, in accordance with these directions, the body was transferred from St. James's to the newly built chapel of Dr. Steevens's Hospital.

In reporting Grissell Steevens' death, a contemporary newsheet, Faulkner's Dublin Journal, recorded the part which she had played in fulfilling her brother's dying wish:

[She] erected an Hospital at her own expense, and reserving only a small apartment therein for herself, gave yearly during her life not less than £500 for the maintenance and cure of such objects as went thither for relief. More need not be said. "Her works praise her" and "the righteous will be held in everlasting remembrance. Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all."

Powerful and authoritarian, but respected in her own lifetime, Grissell Steevens was survived by her reputation, and long after her death she remained a legendary figure to her fellow citizens. During the 19th century, a widely circulated story insisted that Steevens' charity had been inspired by her own deformity, that she had, as the result of a beggarwoman's curse, been born with a pig's face, which she hid behind a thick veil. This rumor had absolutely no foundation in fact. Certainly the portrait painted in about 1740 by Michael Mitchel, and still hanging in the library of the hospital, depicts a face remarkable only for the confidence and steely will which it displays, and the tale as relating to Steevens does not appear in any 18th-century source, although different versions of a similar story were current in Europe and Britain over a century before she was born. A more appropriate memorial was provided by her institution, known to generations of Dubliners as "Madam Steevens's Hospital." Although the hospital itself closed in 1987, the newly restored building in which it was housed survives as one of the glories of Georgian Dublin and as a visible record of Grissell Steevens' benevolence and determination.


Brady, Cheyne. The History of Steevens's Hospital. Dublin: Hodges, Smith, 1865.

Kirkpatrick, T.P.C. History of Dr. Steevens's Hospital, Dublin 1720–1920. Dublin: University Press, 1924.

suggested reading:

Fleetwood, John. History of Medicine in Ireland. Dublin: Browne & Nolan, 1951.

McCracken, J.L. "The social structure and social life, 1714–60," in A New History of Ireland. Edited by T.W. Moody and W.E. Vaughan. Vol. IV. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986, pp. 31–56.

Owen, David. English Philanthropy 1660–1960. London: Oxford University Press, 1965.


"A short history of the hospital founded by Dr. Richard Steevens, 1717–1785, by Samuel Croker King," Gilbert collection MS 108, Dublin City Library.

Rosemary Raughter , freelance writer in women's history, Dublin, Ireland

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