Collecting Nursing History 58
Mary Josephine (aka May) Leonard
Sue Barker
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Mary Josephine (aka May) Leonard



Family Background

Mary was born in 1869, probably in Athenry, County Galway, Ireland. She was one of 6 children born to her parents Dr Henry John Wellington Leonard and Alice Mary nee Kelly (married 14 Nov 1859 Marlborough Street Dublin). Mary's siblings were Barbara Mary Alice 1865-1953, Henrietta Mary 1868-1953, Jane Elizabeth 1866-1955, Stephen Patrick 1870-1917 and John Henry 1871-?.

Mary was born into a wealthy Catholic family and the family home was Athenry House (aka Town House), an imposing residence of 20 rooms and a very large garden.

It is possible that Mary's brother John Henry died in infancy and none of her remaining siblings ever left the family home, married or produced children. Stephen briefly attempted to follow his father into medicine at Queen's College Galway in 1882, but didn't complete. Documentary evidence of appearances before the Magistrate for drink related offences indicates that his preference for alcohol could have contributed to this. He also died of cancer of the oesophagus at only 47.

Mary's father received his LM (Licence of Midwifery) at Coombe Lying-in Hospital Dublin in 1952, LAH (Licence Apoth. Hall) at Dublin in 1856, LFPS Licence of Faculty and Psychiatry) and LM at Glasgow in 1860, was a member of the Royal College of Surgeons (Ireland), was Medical Officer for Athenry and the Athyman Dispensary Districts and was held in high regard nationally for containing a Smallpox outbreak in the town and preventing much loss of life.

He died on 28 May 1893 of 'Congestion of the lungs', aged 64, his daughter Mary at his bedside. 

Mary's mother died on 9 April 1913 of 'senile decay and weak heart' aged 83. A headstone in the small graveyard behind the new church in Athenry reads:-

‘In loving memory of
Dr Wellington Leonard
Town House, Athenry
who died 28 May 1893
Also his wife Alice
and their children
Stephen, Mary, Barbara, Henrietta
Also Jane Elizabeth Leonard
who died 28 March 1955’

(Courtesy of Finbarr O'Regan - Athenry History Archive)

Nursing Career

The year following her father's death, Mary received recommendations from Athenry for by her sister Henrietta. Magistrate Major Albert Clarke of Graig Abbey and the Reverend Canon ?Cauton to accompany her application to train as a nurse at the Mater Misericordiae Hospital in Dublin.

The hospital was founded in 1861 by the Sisters of Mercy and the School of Nursing opened in 1891. In WW1 hospital ships brought injured soldiers to the Mater and nursing staff travelled abroad to treat injured soldiers on the Western Front. The Mater also cared for those killed or injured during the Easter Rising in 1916.

The School of Nursing was the first to be opened in Dublin by a religious order and it was modeled on the Nightingale School of Nursing at St Thomas' Hospital in London. The Mater Nursing School opened with 10 students, who had to buy their own uniform and books and pay a small tuition fee. They were required to be mature well educated women. The training was 3 years in duration with a further year in nursing practice to gain the hospital certificate. Mary McGivney, who had completed her nurse training at the London Hospital was the lay matron supervising the student nurses. She served until 1920 and the school gained a reputation for producing a high standard of nurse.

The records at the Mater Archives show that Mary was from Athenry house and started her training on 8th October 1894, aged 25. Her previous occupation was recorded as 'Living at home'. She passed the exams held in 1895 in Medical, Surgical and Gynaecological Nursing, Elementary Anatomy, Physiology and Hygiene. Her Certificate was issued on 8th October 1897 '3 years answering at examinations, very good'. Mary left the Mater and in 1898 was Night Superintendant at Waterford Hospital.

 (Courtesy of Helen Madden, Mater Archivist).

This was a short lived appointment, as on 21st October 1898, Mary joined Princess Christian's Army Nursing Service Reserve, Service Number 19. She travelled to South Africa to treat the injured soldiers of the Boer War.

On July 31st 1900 May was in Pretoria and then on 4th August 1901 she was at No 8 General Hospital Bloemfontein. From 23 April to the end of August 1900, 234 wounded soldiers were treated in No 8 General Hospital without any loss of life.However out of the soldiers hospitalised with disease e.g. Typhoid, 216 soldiers died during the same period. The hospitals were often little more than rows of bell tents, with 8-12 beds in each.

On 22nd November 1901 May was back in Pretoria, at No 19 General Hospital. After demobilisation she received the South Africa Medal.

Little is known of Mary after she returned from the Boer War. She cannot be found in the 1911 census. The last remaining family member, Mary's sister Jane died in 1955 and probate was granted to a Charles Taylor, whose father actually rented part of the house for a while, alongside the Leonard family. Charles believes that Mary had a boyfriend who went off to fight in WW1 and was killed.

Mary returned to live at Athenry some time between 1911 and 1944. She died there, of 'Influenza and heart failure', unmarried and aged about 80 on 7 January 1944, cared


Copyright Sue Barker Schoolsofnursing 2017


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