Mary Stewart (B.1909): Health and Welfare – Writing Lives

Mary Stewart (B.1909): Health and Welfare

What Mary’s penmanship may lack in politics and war memories, rather unusually, she makes up for with her information on health, from the view of the working class and medical practitioners of the early to mid 20th century.

Although it is likely Mary did not write the blog to be used for use in medicinal history, she has, without even realising so, supplied us with some rather incredible and interesting viewpoints.

Mary’s youngest child Jimmy, who she describes as her “invalid child”, is diagnosed with Celiac disease as a baby. Although Celiac disease is now a very well known form of Gluten intolerance, during the time of World War Two, there was still very little known about it. It is thought that since the early 1950’s, the amount of cases of Celiac in children and adults has almost quadrupled in numbers, due to increased understandings and in turn more diagnosis.

With our 21st century medical knowledge of Celiac, it is now easier for sufferers of the disease to enjoy a diet free of foods which bring on a vast number of symptoms, including weight loss and growth stunting, and also enjoy online support groups or local Celiac communities in their area who offer care and advice.


1900 doctors office

 Image: A doctors office circa 1900

Sadly it was not the same situation for young mother Mary: “He had to have sugar free, fat free diet, only white meats, veal, chicken etc. Where do I get these things, the war only just over, & everything in short supply.” Being from a working class home, it would be difficult enough for Mary to feed her large family with the limited rationing book from week to week. The further limitation of her son’s celiac diet would have been incredibly tricky as she has not only to feed her ill son, but the rest of her growing children as well.

The strong character that Mary is even admits under these difficult circumstances, she, “..had a little weep”. As we have seen in other aspects of her life, Mary was not one to give up that easy! With our understanding of foods today, it is easy for us to simply check the label of products and know the ingredients and nutritional value however Mary makes clear her concerns and how she was able to overcome them: “What did I know about calorie content, sugar, fat or protein content, not at thing. But didn’t take me long to learn. Into the library, diet books and what have you.” Mary’s way of dealing with difficult situations enables her to overcome this hurdle in her son’s life and we are pleased to read that Jimmy grows to be a healthy young man, even if he, “..has legs shorter than his brothers.”!

We are able to grasp more clearly the advancements we have made in medicinal areas, moving from what seems a rather weak understanding of what poor Jimmy is suffering from, to a very well known and understood gluten intolerance within the space of 60 years.

Another medical issue which appears in Mary’s memoir is not so much a personal concern but one which affected her Mother-in-law. The topic arises as Mary explains for her wedding she needed to acquire both her and her husband Denis’s birth certificates. However, she is rather taken a back to realise Denis had never been a registered child at all, and the story she finds has a very sad background indeed.

Mary’s mother-in-law had, “..3 lovely babies before Denis, good and healthy…” Their health was however not long lived: “..along came the town Doctor.. to vaccinate them before they were 4 months old.” Though we can not pin point what the vaccination was (possibly smallpox) that killed not only one, but three of her children we may question, why she continued having her children vaccinated after the first, “started with croup a few days after the vaccination, & choked to death just a few weeks later”?

Under the Vaccination Law of 1898, it was legally binding that your children must be vaccinated with a number of health shots. Although the act had been modified to allow parents to petition against their children’s vaccination, it was a long and difficult process, with parents often having to appeal in front of numerous magistrates. For a young working class mother, the difficult process may be time and money consuming and not even conclude with a positive outcome.

It is difficult for us to fully comprehend the problems faced in medical situations in the early to mid 20th century as we are used to our modern day reliance on advanced medical knowledge, however Mary is able to at least show us a working class viewpoint we may previously not have had access to.


  • Image: A doctors office in 1900
  • (last accesssed 1st January 2014)
  • (last accessed 20th December 2013)
  • (last accessed December 14th 2014)
  • Stewart, Mary. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, 2-741

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