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Dermod MacCarthy: a paediatric pioneer
  1. Mary Lindsay
  1. Children's Centre, Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Aylesbury, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Mary Lindsay, Children's Centre (retired), Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Aylesbury HP21 8AL, UK; marylindsay{at}

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Once he had seen the impact of parental separation on small children, Dr Dermod MacCarthy (1911–1986) opened his ward to all mothers of children under 5, which no one had done before. Thus began a revolution in paediatric hospital practice.

At a meeting of the paediatric section of the Royal Society of Medicine (RSM) in November 1952, he had, together with his ward sister Ivy Morris, seen the scientific film A Two Year Old Goes to Hospital,1 made by James Robertson in John Bowlby’s department at the Tavistock Clinic. The film showed young Laura deeply upset at being admitted to hospital without her mother, constantly asking for her. The paediatricians were outraged, insisting that the children on their wards were happy. Dr MacCarthy was at first also antagonistic but then remembered Sir James Spence’s practice at the Mothers and Babies Hospital in Newcastle 30 years earlier.2 Mainly for their own benefit, Spence had selected some mothers to stay in his hospital to breast feed their babies. MaCarthy now wanted to ‘extend the idea to the small child admitted to a paediatric ward’ (MacCarthy, p264)2 specifically because of their distress at being separated from their parents.

On 1 January 1953, MacCarthy put an adult bed and an easy chair in each cubicle on his ward in Amersham Hospital and asked the mothers of all his child patients under 5 if they would like to come in to help look after them. Initially, there were just a …

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