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Margaret McMillan pioneered medical examinations for schoolchildren

Posted in Education, Historical articles, History, Labour Party, Medicine on Wednesday, 29 May 2013

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This edited article about medicine originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 272 published on 1 April 1967.

British schoolchildren, picture, image, illustration

British schoolchildren in the early twentieth century

“Open your mouth and let us see if you have nice, white teeth.”

The little boy looked doubtfully first at the lady and then at the doctor. They both looked kind, and so he opened his mouth wide.

He was the first of millions of British children to have routine medical examinations at school.

Today, school clinics, nursery schools and physical education as part of the school curriculum are taken for granted. But only 70 years ago, Margaret McMillan had to fight to get these ideas accepted.

Margaret McMillan was born in New York on 20th January, 1860. She grew up in Scotland with her mother and her sister Rachel. She planned to become a governess, then for a time she wanted to be an actress. In fact she achieved neither of these ambitions, for she grew interested in politics and became a member of the Independent Labour Party in 1893.

A year later, she was elected to the local school board and, seeing the poor state of health of so many young British school children, she realised that her life’s work lay in helping them.

By 1899, she had successfully fought to impress on her colleagues the importance of regular medical inspection for children, and supervised it herself in several schools. At the same time, with the help of her sister, she began her first nursery school, and, as soon as that was making progress, turned her energies to establishing camp schools for boys.

In 1910, Margaret and Rachel opened their largest clinic for sick children, in Deptford. After a year of hard work, they won official recognition and government help.

During the First World War (1914-18), the two sisters set up an open-air nursery school for under-fives which caused world-wide interest.

Margaret’s final success came in 1929 when she founded a college for training infants’ teachers which carried on her ideas.

Two years later, On 29th March, 1931, Margaret McMillan died at Harrow.

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