Zepherina Smith – International Women’s Day 2019

In celebration of International Women’s Day 2019 this post brings you a short biography of Zepherina Smith (1836-1894), the inspirational woman who became the first president of the Royal College of Midwives.

Zepherina Philadelphia Veitch was born in 1836 and was the daughter of  a clergyman. As a young woman she trained as a nurse under the All Saints Sisters at University College Hospital. In 1868 she took charge of the surgical wards at King’s College Hospital and a year later was appointed Superintendent of Nurses at St. George’s Hospital, London.

When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870 Zepherina joined the All Saints Sisters to nurse the wounded in Sedan. On  her return at the end of the war in 1871 she became Sisiter-in-Charge at Charing Cross Hospital. It was during her work here that she became increasingly interested and concerned in the care of women during pregnancy and birth. Many poor women were unable to afford the doctors fees at the time and relied on local midwives, many unskilled and certainly unhygienic. Zepherina herself then undertook training in midwifery at the British Lying-In Hospital near Endell Street in London. She qualified in January 1873 and later obtained the diploma in midwifery of the London Obstetrical Society.

Then began her work with the poor of the London slums.

However, as was typical of the time, she felt obliged to give up on her career in midwifery following her marriage to Professor Henry Smith, a Surgeon, in 1876. This did not stop her completely however, and she instead put her energies into the midwifery reform in order to improve the profession and she argued that a woman should not be able to call herself a midwife unless she was properly trained. She soon came to the attention of social reformer Louisa Hubbard, who in 1876 published Zepherina’s article on the improvement of midwifery standards. Zepherina became one of seven trained midwives to for the Matron’s Aid Society in 1881. The use of the word ‘Matron’ in the title was due to the consideration that ‘midwife’ was not a word for polite society. However, this did not last long and by the late 1880s the society became the ‘Midwives Institute’, predecessor of the Royal College of Midwives as it became known in 1947. Initially Treasurer of the Society, Zepherina became its first President in 1890, a position she held until her death in 1894.

Zepherina Smith

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Zepherina’s Legacy: A group of (unknown) trained midwives c.1900.

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Early midwifery anatomy training c.1900

Sources:

 Cowell and Wainwright, Behind the Blue Door: The History of the Royal College of Midwives, 1881-1981 (1981)

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