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Who is Zepherina Veitch?

Who is Zepherina Veitch?

Each year, The Royal College of Midwives invites a leading midwifery academic to deliver a thought-provoking and inspiring lecture, presenting the best in current midwifery research.   The lecture commemorates Zepherina Veitch, a pioneer of modern midwifery and one of the founders of the institution which would become the RCM.  Recent lecturers have included Professor Denis Walsh, Professor Dame Tina Lavender, Professor Helen Cheyne, Professor Debra Bick, Professor Sheila Hunt, Professor Mary Renfrew and Professor Helen Spiby. 

Zepherina Veitch (1836-1894)

Zepherina Veitch was the daughter of a clergyman who trained as a nurse under the All Saints’ Sisters at University College Hospital. In 1868 she took charge of the surgical wards at King’s College Hospital, and a year later she took up an appointed as Superintendent of Nurses at St George’s Hospital. 

During the Franco-Prussian War she nursed with the All Saints’ Sisters at Sedan. On her return in 1871 she became Sister-in-charge at Charing Cross Hospital. It was at this time that she became increasingly concerned about the situation prevailing in midwifery, particularly among the poor. She undertook training in midwifery at the British Lying-In Hospital near Endell Street, qualifying in January 1873 and went on to obtain the diploma of the London Obstetrical Society, before beginning her work with the poor living in the slums of London. 

In 1876, she was obliged to give up her career after marrying the distinguished surgeon, Professor Henry Smith and instead put her energies into the cause of midwifery reform. Her aim was to improve the status and efficiency of midwives through training, and argued that a woman should not be able to call herself a midwife unless she was properly trained. 

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that when she submitted an article on midwifery to the Women's Gazette she immediately came to the attention of the editor, Louisa Hubbard, who took an interest in expanding women's work opportunities and in improving their employment conditions. Zepherina Smith was one of seven midwives, all holders of the LOS diploma, who were called to a meeting by Hubbard in December 1881 to form the Matron's Aid Society, with the aim of improving the training of midwives and securing their registration by act of parliament. The name was chosen because the word ‘midwife’ was rarely used in ‘polite’ society, but by the late 1880s the members of the society were confident enough to change the name to the Midwives' Institute (which became the Royal College of Midwives in 1948). Zepherina Smith was the treasurer of the society, which had only a handful of members at the beginning, until it was incorporated in 1889. She then became its first president, serving from 1890 until her death in 1894.

It was Zepherina Smith that represented the institute on deputations to the government, and when a committee sat to frame the first Midwives' Bill in 1890 she was asked to attend the sittings to watch proceedings from the point of view of the midwife. In 1892 she also gave evidence to the select committee on midwifery and delivered numerous papers to clubs and societies on the subject of midwife registration.

After several months of ill health Zepherina Smith died at her home near Woking, Surrey on 8 February 1894.