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The female trailblazers of Irish medicine

Victoria Coffey was 11 years old when her younger brother Alfred died. Her parents had already lost two children before Victoria’s birth and lost a newborn daughter, who was just six days old, a month before Alfred’s death. Growing up in a household that had lost four children, three in their infancy, it’s not surprising that Coffey went on to dedicate her medical career to the needs of sick children.

“Vicki had no particular interest in material things,” remembers her grand-nephew Robert Coffey. “It’s clear from the path she went down that she never chased money. She did roles that were enormously overworked and very poorly paid compared to what she might have been had she gone into private practice. She wanted things to be made right and was uncompromising in that pursuit. She lost a number of siblings who died as babies and I suspect that was one of the main reasons she was so motivated to learn about the health of newborns and young children.”

Born in Dublin 1911, Dr Coffey went on to become one of the first female paediatricians in Ireland, the first woman president of the Irish Paediatric Association and one of the first Irish doctors to investigate metabolic disorders in newborns. She qualified from the Royal College of Surgeons in 1936 and became an early investigator of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in Ireland. In 1943 she was appointed as medical officer to St Kevin’s hospital which mainly worked with patients suffering from chronic illnesses. She also conducted vital research into the effects of the thalidomide drug on women and their children.

Robert Coffey says his aunt not only found great fulfilment in her medical work but also had a love of music. “In her younger days she was a fantastic singer and she also played cello to a high standard. She won lots of feis medals for dancing and music.“She was a non-nonsense person but with quite a wicked sense of humour,” he says. “She was not always an easy personality but being a woman in her profession at that time she probably found that necessary. Women such as Victoria and any women who managed to achieve great things often had to be twice as good as the men around them.

“It’s pretty extraordinary to not only look at all their achievements but also the barriers and obstacles that were placed in their way. Put in that context she and the other women around her were particularly inspiring.”