Project Canterbury

Dame Mary Dacomb Scharlieb

London: The Catholic Literature Association, 1933.

THE nineteenth century, which saw the spread of the Catholic Revival in the Anglican Communion, saw also the growth of scientific thought and the entry of women into public life. Whilst these different movements were often placed in apparent opposition by their various advocates, it was seldom that they were all harmoniously blended in one individual.

Dame Mary Scharlieb, born before anaesthetics were discovered, entering her profession in the early days of Listerian surgery, was never carried away by the fashionable scientific materialism of the nineteenth or the eugenic fancies of the twentieth century. She had to contend persistently, yet with gentle courtesy, against the many barriers which in her early days fenced off women from the learned professions and public life. She was never led astray by those who, in their desire to cast off the artificial restraints by which puritanism had lowered the status of women, have often abandoned the moral restraints which both nature and the Catholic Faith demand.

Her contribution to the Revival was to teach the world, by the force of her medical knowledge and experience, that Christian moral standards in married life were not the dictates of a past age out of touch with modern knowledge and modern conditions, but were abiding moral laws in conformity with man's nature, though only to be attained in perfection through God's grace. Her sane, well-balanced life found its centre in her religion. Brought up in an Evangelical home, lie so many of the earlier Tractarians, on this solid basis of piety was built up, by unfailing use of the Sacraments, a life of prayer, and almost certainly of high mystical attainment.


William Candler Bird, one of a firm of dyers in Bethnal Green, was engaged for ten years to Mary Dacomb, who came of a Dorsetshire family. She married him in 1844, only to die a year later, ten days after the birth of their child, Mary Dacomb Bird. The father centred all his hopes in his infant daughter. Nearly thirty years later, in a letter to her in India, he wrote: 'I was moved to Manchester when you were about two months old. . . . One evening as I was walking home from the warehouse I went into Trinity Church. I think if ever a father asked for his child to be spared him, and to have good health and good intellect granted to it, I did most sincerely; and at the same time, if these great blessings were vouchsafed to my child, I then dedicated its life to the glory of God and the good of its fellow-creatures, not making any stipulation of any kind, but simply asking the blessing and leaving the rest to a Higher Power. I particularly well recollect walking from the church. ... I had a curious kind of feeling or revelation that request would be granted.' Seldom can a parent's prayer for his child have been answered more clearly, but it was no selfish motive which actuated William Bird, and he bequeathed to his child that same utter selflessness that many years later in his dying hours made him tell his daughter to bid him good-bye and to leave him that she might not neglect a suffering patient. Little Mary Bird first lived with her grandparents, and there is a glimpse of the strict Evangelical household in her earliest recollection of a Sunday afternoon, when her young Uncle Edmund raised just one corner of the blind, drawn closely down in honour of the day, that the three-year child might see out. She went to a boarding school in Manchester, then to one in New Brighton, and finally received an excellent education at Mrs. Tyndall's, 16, Upper Hamilton Terrace, in London. A serious-minded child who 'loathed parties,' she showed her characteristic determination at school by practising her music five hours a day in an effort to please her beloved father and not fall behind the musical standard of her family, one of her cousins being the organist Henry Bird. Her preparation for Confirmation seems to have made little impression upon her, consisting, as it did, 'of scholarly comments on the epistles.'

At nineteeen years of age she met William Scharlieb, 'who was engaged in eating his dinners at the Middle Temple, preparatory to his call to the Bar and subsequent practice in Madras as a barrister.' For both it was love at first sight, but his proposal, in February, 1865, met with prompt opposition. Who was the handsome foreign-looking man with a strange name who wished to take this mere child away to his home in Madras?

The father foresaw the disappointment of all his hopes, but Mary persisted, and eventually, with many misgivings, the marriage took place in December, 1865, and the couple sailed for India almost at once.


Reared in an Evangelical household in the shelter of those days, there was little to prepare Mary Scharlieb for life as she was to meet it. India was the beginning of the road she was to follow for over sixty years. There, from her husband, and from their parish priest, A. C. Taylor, she learnt the Catholic Faith, 'which makes the joy of my life.' There she spent her married life and three children were born to her. There she found her vocation in the profession she served so well.

Her sound education enabled her to help her husband in reviewing books, and thus Fayre's Medical Jurisprudence fell into her hands and aroused her interest in medicine; this, coupled with her servants' tales of the sufferings of the native women in childbirth, awakened her desire to help the Indian women. After some opposition from the authorities she was allowed to attend the Lying-in Hospital daily from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. A year of this only convinced her how much she had to learn, and she wished then and there to join the pioneer women in England in their struggle for London degrees. Her husband, anxious though he was that she should fulfil what she deemed her mission in life, naturally opposed this; so she became instead one of the first four women students at the Madras Medical College, whilst her father, step-mother, and sister came out to India and helped to look after her children.

In three years she gained her Licentiate in Medicine. She had then been twelve years in India, where her health had never been good. The children also were of an age to take to England. She set sail with them in a small ship, her eyes fixed on the English medical degree. On her arrival in England in 1878 she called on Mrs. Garrett Anderson, the only qualified medical woman until 1877, who had recently started the London School of Medicine for Women. Here she met with small encouragement, her prolonged stay in India and her naturally frail physique producing an unfavourable impression of her ability to follow such a strenuous profession. She was, however, accepted, and in 1879, in company with three other candidates for the first medical examination, celebrated the appearance of their names on the pass-list hung up at Burlington House 'by rushing across Regent Street, and each buying a Japanese teapot at Liberty's.' (The manner of the celebration sufficiently betrays both their sex and their generation.) In November, 1882, at the age of thirty-seven, she qualified in Medicine with Honours in all subjects, the Gold Medal and the Scholarship in Obstetrics; shortly after this she gained second-class Honours in Surgery. As did many men at that time, she went for six weeks to study operative midwifery in Vienna, and by her persistence in the face of much discomfort and opposition she obtained invaluable practice and experience. She was joined in Italy by her husband, and on their return to England, by the action of Sir Henry Acland, she was commanded to Windsor, where Queen Victoria insisted on hearing fully from her how the women of India, forbidden by their religion to obtain help from male doctors, were abandoned to the ignorance and superstition of the native women who attended them in childbirth. The Queen, always mindful of her Indian subjects, expressed her warm approval and interest to Mrs. Scharlieb, and waxed indignant that others had tried to persuade her that there was no need for medical women in India.

The children being left in London in the safe keeping of Professor and Mrs. Schafer, she gladly returned to India with her husband, anxious 'to find out how far my efforts and sacrifices were likely to be of use to the women in India, both European and native.' For the first two months, although at every fresh stage of her training 'I had earnestly prayed for guidance,' yet she doubted whether she had been right in spending all this time and money, but in a short time she had more patients than she could manage. She found that she needed, what she quickly obtained, a Hospital for Caste and Gosha women, since they could admit no nurse to their households, and their women attendants were quite incapable of carrying out the doctor's orders. She records her daily routine carried out in the trying climate of Madras: '5.30 a.m., visits to patients in their houses. 7 a.m., about seventy patients at Hospital and a round of thirty beds; breakfast. 12 to 1 p.m., lecture to women students at the Medical College, 1 p.m., consultations at home. 4 p.m., tea and change of clothes, visits to European patients in their houses, and perhaps a little relaxation before dinner at 8 p.m., and then to bed, often only to be disturbed for two or three successive cases before dawn.' After a while she persuaded the Hospital Committee that a resident medical officer was needed, and Mary Pailthorpe arrived. 'My first feeling in connection with her arrival was thankfulness that she could make it possible for me to be ill or to take a holiday.' Small wonder that after four years of such an existence she was obliged in her early forties to return finally to England.

Whilst in India she never thought it right to take advantage of her position in the household as a doctor to do definite missionary work, since she was not an avowed missionary; indeed, had she been, many doors would doubtless have been closed to her. In her love of the Faith, this must have been a real privation, for in after years in England she was always ready to help the missionary societies and was medical referee for several. All her professional life, if she were asked to give an evening to relaxation, to go out to dinner, maybe, 'work did not permit,' but if she were asked to address the smallest missionary meeting in a remote corner of England she went without a moment's hesitation. Among Hindus and Mohammedans alike, whose religion has a real practical influence on their lives, she knew only too well how much scandal is caused when Europeans, whom they recognize as professing a purer religion than their own, show themselves so utterly indifferent to the practice of it, and it was her aim to live the Gospel amongst her native patients since she might not preach it verbally.


In February, 1887, she said good-bye to her husband, 'going home probably to die,' and, accompanied by her father, step-mother, and her little niece, returned to England. Yet such was her resilience and courage that she set to work immediately, lecturing in Medical Jurisprudence at her old medical school, and she records that private practice really began on May 21, 1887, with five patients in the morning, at 75, Park Street, where she was in rooms with her medical student son. In October she took 149, Harley Street, where she lived and practised for nearly forty years. She was soon appointed Physician to the New Hospital for Women (now the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital, Euston Road), and in surgery assisted Mrs. Garrett Anderson, whom she later succeeded. In 1888 she obtained the M.D. (Lond.), and was the first, and for some time the only woman to hold that degree. The expenses of a large house, although the Schafers shared it with her, laid heavily upon her at first, and she augmented her private practice by coaching students, often spending six hours a day in this way. She denied herself a much needed secretary and a still more needed carriage; indeed, her husband's first present to her on his arrival in England was the coveted brougham. He arrived on October 14, 1890, in good health and spirits to join his wife and to meet his daughter and younger son whom he had not seen for seven and a half years. The purpose of this journey was to place a Rajah's appeal before the Privy Council, but before the hearing came on he developed influenza, dying in five days on January 9, 1891. His wife, characteristically forgetting her own sorrow and loneliness, consoled herself that her husband had been spared the probable failure of his case, which would have caused him bitter disappointment and worry.

In 1897 she obtained the degree of Master of Surgery, and in 1902 was made Gynaecologist to the Royal Free Hospital, a post open to men and women alike. She also held the Chair of Gynaecology and of Midwifery in the Medical School. These she held until 1908, when, her professional appointments finished, a leading figure in the medical world--her portrait, painted by Hugh Riviere, paid by public subscription from all parts and all classes--after a strenuous life of over sixty years, a little leisure would have seemed a just reward to most, but not to Mary Scharlieb. She continued in her private professional work, exerting the same zeal. The extra time gained was devoted to public works and to speaking and writing, and it is here probably that her most abiding influence lies.

Soon after the outbreak of war she was offered (September, 1914) the charge of one of the Women's Hospitals in Belgium, but, realizing her age and her probable inability to stand the life, she most wisely refused. She offered instead to treat all officers' wives and Belgian women without fees. She became Chairman of the Midwifery Committee of the Council of War Relief for the professional classes, and spent much of her time and energies in its Maternity Hospital. She was made a C.B.E. in August, 1917. She gave of herself and her means unsparingly with her characteristic whole-heartedness; indeed, it was difficult to persuade her to provide sufficient for her own bodily needs. She even refused to buy warm clothes when those she had could be mended no longer, saying, 'We are told not to spend money on ourselves or to buy things that others need.'


In 1913 she had been appointed a member of the Royal Commission on Venereal Diseases under the Chairmanship of Lord Sydenham. Here, strengthened by her incontestable medical knowledge and her wide clinical experience, she stood staunchly on the side of moral right, ever denying the necessity of 'the double moral standard' that potent cause of the spread of infection. In response to the Chairman's appeal to members of the Commission to educate the public she wrote several simple, practical books, and spoke frequently in public. In the same year she was appointed to the Commission on the National Birth Rate, where her help must have been invaluable, with every right to speak as a doctor, a wife, and a Catholic. How well could England do with her like to-day!

In her public life no one ever doubted where Mary Scharlieb stood; secure in the Catholic Faith, she was full of love and admiration for all that was good even in non-Christian religions, and because of her own goodness she saw always the goodness and possibilities in others. Yet in the sphere of morals she was rigid, never swayed by misguided sentiment or the plea of hard cases. She spoke and wrote much also on the problems which confront women before and after marriage, and in the upbringing of their children. Her attitude is well summed up in the paper which she gave at the Anglo-Catholic Congress on July 12,1923, under the chairmanship of Bishop Weston. This spare, upright old lady, with decided features and penetrating eyes, got up in that vast hall to speak on the work of God the Holy Ghost in the Christian home. It was a clear delivery of an arresting, yet totally unsentimental, speech about Catholic truths on sex, marriage, divorce, and family life; clarified by practical facts which only a woman trained in medicine and secure in a deep spirituality could possibly have spoken on that platform, whilst giving no shock to the most ignorant nor cause for criticism to the most enlightened. She spoke of the beauty of sex and its God-given instinct, together with the gift of free will. Although she was fully alive to the social and economic difficulties, which press hardly on young married people in these days, she contended that, whilst the objects maybe good,' artificial contraceptives are wrong, morally, medically, rationally.' She put in a powerful plea for the exercise of natural means of spacing the family. She spoke of divorce and of the injustice even to the guilty party, who, if a second union is contracted by the innocent partner, is 'thereby prevented from making reparation and by this debarred from full repentance.' Finally, she ended up with a powerful plea for Church Schools: 'Among the queerest heresies is that which teaches that children ought not to be biassed, or, as they say, "prejudiced," in their spiritual outlook. . . . Such parents and guardians are, indeed, biassing and prejudicing their children's choice, because it is inevitable that children left without religious instruction must grow up in the belief that the truths of religion and the practice of religion cannot be of much importance to their parents.'

As she taught, so she practised. She was a constant worshipper in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Munster Square, London, for forty years, and when, about 1900, the church was threatened by Protestant rioters, her younger son immediately joined the band of men who undertook to defend Fr. Jervois and his church. True to his upbringing, this son is a sidesman there to this day (1933).

Her appointment, in 1920, as one of the first women magistrates gave her much satisfaction, and in spite of her advanced age she took the keenest interest in all that she did, especially in the Juvenile Courts, and as Visiting Magistrate to Holloway Gaol. She said: 'For some time I had been deeply interested in the women prisoners through my friendship with the Chaplain to the prison, and I thought that the influence of a woman magistrate might be helpful. ... I was not disappointed in this work.'

She received the honour of Dame of the British Empire in 1928 for her work, both medical and social.

In November, 1930, after some months of failing health, she passed to her rest. At the Requiem Mass were many friends who came, as she would have wished, to plead the Holy Sacrifice for her immortal soul. At the funeral service, the great Church of St. Mary Magdalene was filled to overflowing by a crowd expressive of her many interests and of all aspects of medicine. Her old medical school, which she had served so well, was represented not only by the staff, but also by students who had never known Dame Mary, but to whom she was already a great tradition. The missionary and charitable societies, to which she had given so freely of her time, sent their delegates. There came also her patients, both rich and poor, who, having met with her unfailing kindness, came to pray for her whom they loved, and to thank God for the work he had allowed her to do.


A pioneer among medical women, she had contended with opposition steadily yet courteously. It was the only way she knew. Her courtesy extended to all; even in her eighties she would still rise from her chair to greet the youngest or least important, ever anxious that the position which she had won should not make her high-minded. Always forgetful of herself and oblivious of unessentials, her very abstraction was a source of worry to those who cared for her.

Dame Mary wrote her Reminiscences in order, among other things, 'to supply an answer to those who ask whether professional life is compatible with wifely and motherly duties. I know that it is.' Like many another heroic character, she could accomplish what most would be foolish to attempt. This gentle lady had in the world that which would have sufficed two women--on the one hand a husband and children, and on the other a very eminent career--yet she never allowed the cares of this world to choke her. Her religion was paramount; as it came first in her life, so it came first in her day. In her latter years, in an immensely busy life, she would rise before 6.30 a.m. so that she might have two hours of uninterrupted devotion before her day's work. She so trained herself that those who knew her best believed that her every moment was recollected. She had a great ambition to write a novel, having begun one at the age of five years. She published one when she was nearly eighty. This latter, Yet a More Excellent Way, as a novel is a total failure, but it is well worth reading. It is the story of a spiritual pilgrimage, the life of a beloved son, 'a child of many prayers,' who finds his vocation in the religious life as a missionary in India. It shows a deep sympathy and insight into the native life and religions, but the real interest lies in the light which it throws on the author. In it she writes of her religious life as she never wrote elsewhere. It sums up her own attitude. It might be said of her as she wrote of her hero mystic: 'There had, however, been a special quality about Father Basil's life and work. Through long years of effort, of prayer, communion and recollection, he had not only maintained his childish attitude of the God-inebriated lover, but by the bestowal of special grace he had been permitted to be the channel of many blessings to Christian and heathen alike; and in his ministrations of love to the sick, the sorrowful, the poor and the outcast, he had been found to be father and a friend.'

As an index of her personal attainments in mystical devotion it is a remarkable book, making it the more regrettable that she has left nothing more, on paper, of the secret of her progress in the Faith in which she lived and died so well.

As she exercised in her own life every capacity of body, mind, and spirit, so she appreciated the threefold human personality of her patients. She never lost her sense of proportion. Paid to minister to sick bodies, often required to minister to sick minds, she never failed to minister to sick souls.

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