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Two giants in child health
  1. M Lindsay
  1. Retired Child Psychiatrist, Hertfordshire, UK

Abstract

This is the centenary of Dermod MacCarthy and James Robertson who together changed the care of children away from home. Both were born in March 1911, MacCarthy in a Square off the Kings Road in London and Robertson in the Gorbles, a deprived area of Glasgow.

In 1948 Bowlby appointed Robertson to observe children separated from parents. Children in hospital rarely saw their parents. Robertson became deeply concerned about the short and long term damaging effect on the young children. No one would listen, so he made the film ‘A Two Year old Goes to Hospital’, shown at the RSM in 1952 it caused outrage. One paediatrician, MacCarthy, listened to his ward sister who agreed with Robertson. He then saw the distress of young children and arranged that their mothers could stay in hospital with them. In 1956 Robertson and MacCarthy made the film ‘Going to Hospital with Mother’. Both contributed to the Platt Report (1959). They campaigned for unrestricted visiting and facilities for mothers of the young children to stay with them. This became National Health Service policy.

As President of the Confederation of the European Societies of Paediatricians, MacCarthy introduced these ideas to Europe, and was also President of the Paediatric Section of the RSM. He studied the effects of emotional deprivation on the growth of children and encouraged paediatricians to work with child Psychiatrists. In 1984 he was awarded the James Spence medal.

Robertson reported his later research ‘Young Children in Brief Separation’ in five films contrasting ‘John’ in a residential nursery, with ‘Jane’, ‘Kate’, ‘Lucy’ and ‘Thomas’ in foster care. John's distress led to Social Services closing residential nurseries and placing young children with foster carers. This became Social Service policy. He set up the Robertson Centre providing education and expert witnesses for young children in the courts.

The work of MacCarthy and Robertson changed radically the contribution of parents to the care of children attending or admitted to hospital and fostering and adoption for children instead of institutional care.

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