Dr Ella Webb (1877 – 1946)

Dr Ella Webb: Reproduced by kind permission of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, SU/8/3/8.

Isabella, later shortened to Ella, Ovenden, was born on October 16th 1877 in Dublin. She was schooled in Dublin, London and Göttingen, Germany. Graduating with a science degree from the Royal University of Ireland in 1899, she entered the Catholic University School of Medicine in Cecilia Street, Temple Bar which had opened its doors to women three years previously. Male medical students were overwhelmingly in the majority (over 99 per cent of the total at the time of Ovenden’s entry), and even by 1918, fewer than 100 women had both trained and qualified as doctors in Ireland. Isabella Ovenden graduated in 1904, the first female student to achieve first place in the final medical examinations of the Royal. She won a travelling scholarship to Vienna and was awarded a doctorate in medicine in 1906.

Writing the following year, she outlined the qualities required by any woman wishing to become a doctor, of which, in her view, the most important was love of the work. She discussed the cost of training and remuneration, remarking that the medical profession was not one which gave “quick returns”, to women in particular. She stated, however, that prospects were improving, as the woman doctor took a more established place in the community, but that her position would only be secure if she showed that she had taken up medicine, not as a fad, but as a serious scientific or philanthropic undertaking.1 In December 1907 she married George Webb, philosopher and mathematician and thereafter used her married name.

Over the next few years, Ella Webb combined clinical and teaching roles. She was active from the outset in the Women’s National Health Association, founded by Lady Aberdeen, wife of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1907, and which focussed on finding ways to eradicate tuberculosis by coordinating pasteurised milk distribution, opening healthcare centres and addressing the social conditions and issues surrounding the extremely high infant mortality rates that existed in Ireland at the time. She taught Anatomy in Trinity College, Dublin and Physiology in Cecilia Street. She also worked on a voluntary basis in at least two Dublin “Babies Clubs”. In addition to having free doctors’ clinics for infants, these clubs, of which 170 were founded all over the country in 1909 alone, aimed to assist mothers in the care of their babies by holding classes on cookery, home hygiene, sewing and so on. Ella Webb was a firm advocate of breastfeeding and in 1913 published an analysis of why 200 mothers in her own practice commenced to breastfeed but then abandoned it, she went on to outline the measures which in her view might be taken to bring about an improvement in the matter.

As Lady District Superintendent in the St John Ambulance Brigade at the time of the 1916 Easter Rising, she took command of and quickly transformed the St John headquarters at Merrion Square, Dublin into a temporary emergency hospital. Thereafter she worked in the hospital and cycled repeatedly through the firing lines to attend there and at other St John locations. In recognition of her Easter Week efforts, she was made a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1918. She continued to write and was the author of an important 1917 paper on Maternity and Child Welfare in Dublin.2

By early 1918, Dr Paul Piel of the Adelaide Hospital in Dublin, who in 1887 had been the first doctor appointed to a designated post of anaesthetist in Ireland, had served for 31 years, and it was time for him to retire. He was succeeded by Ella Webb, who thus became the first female to be appointed to the Adelaide medical staff. Although Drs Ina Clarke and Nina McCarthy had been providing some anaesthetic services in the Richmond Hospital, Dublin over the previous few years their roles appear to have been relatively informal and Webb’s appointment as Adelaide anaesthetist is regarded as having been the first for a woman to such a post in an Irish hospital. In addition to her anaesthetic duties, she ran a children’s dispensary or clinic in the hospital in which she lay great emphasis on the child’s social circumstances and soon sought help in addressing this aspect of her patients’ care. A young lady named Winifred Alcock, who had been training as an almoner in London, responded to her plea and soon began what was an entirely new arrangement of making home visits to those in perceived need. Webb and Alcock were subsequently credited with having originated the concept of Medical Social Work in Ireland.3

St Ultan’s Hospital for Infants, Charlemont Street, Dublin was founded in 1919 as a result of the activity of a group of female doctors and activists who were deeply concerned at the level of infant mortality in Dublin, but also with a dramatic rise in the incidence of infant syphilis in the city in the wake of the First World War. Initially, it worked primarily to combat the ill-health experienced as a result of poverty by Dublin’s infants in the early part of the 20th Century, and specifically hired female staff at a time when it remained difficult, despite what Ella Webb had written some years earlier, for the so-called “lady” doctors to find work. St Ultan’s later assumed a major role in the fight against tuberculosis in the city and was the first hospital in Britain or Ireland in which the BCG vaccine against the disease was administered. Ella Webb worked there from its foundation and continued to do so for most of the remainder of her life.

In her work at the Adelaide and St Ultan’s Hospitals, she treated many cases of childhood rickets and had no doubt that the appalling living conditions and diets of many of her young patients were major factors in the condition’s causation. She was later to be proved correct. By the early 1920s, as knowledge expanded, sunlight was being promoted for rickets prevention and healing. The discovery that same year, 1923, that ultraviolet (UV) light could provide the same protection as sunlight was of particular relevance in Northern European countries such as Ireland. The importance of this finding was recognised by Ella Webb, and she began to use UV light treatment. However, many of her rickets patients lived in Dublin’s dark, overcrowded, tenement slums and she was well aware that they could not be permanently cured without adequate food and care after hospital treatment – this was often not available at home. She and her friend Letitia Overend explored the possibility of finding somewhere to look after them during convalescence. In 1924 a suitable site became available in Stillorgan, Co. Dublin, and following a major fundraising effort a wooden bungalow-type house with two wards, each with a south-facing veranda was planned. The Children’s Sunshine Home opened on St Patrick’s Day 1925.4 Ella Webb was Chairman and Principal Medical Officer from that time until her death over twenty years later.

Webb was now heavily committed to the Sunshine Home, was working in St Ultan’s, was anaesthetist to the Adelaide and continued to run a Children’s Dispensary there. She was still attending at least one Babies Club, and she was also volunteering with St John Ambulance. Towards the end of that year a letter from her to St Ultan’s Medical Board was read in which she tendered her resignation from the hospital due to pressure of work elsewhere. She didn’t cut her links completely and offered to treat babies attending the hospital who required artificial sunlight treatment at her house until the hospital possessed a lamp of its own. One year later, Webb stepped down as anaesthetist to the Adelaide Hospital but retained her children’s dispensary until early 1929. She returned to St Ultan’s that same year and went on to involve both herself and the hospital in postgraduate education in paediatrics.

In 1935, Ella Webb wrote of the first ten years’ experience at the Children’s Sunshine Home.5 She outlined the steps taken that resulted in its opening and then described the management of rickets there. The children were nursed out of doors on the verandas as much as possible, often for 24 hours a day in summertime. The cure rate in 477 patients admitted over ten years was 56 per cent, with most of the remainder showing improvement. By the mid-1940s, her health was failing. She continued to work in both St Ultan’s and the Sunshine Home, and as a volunteer with the St John Ambulance Brigade, until shortly before her death, aged 69 years, on April 24th 1946.

While Webb’s own anaesthesia career of nine years or so was relatively short, her appointment in 1918 to the Adelaide Hospital helped ‘open the door’ for others, and a number of Irish female doctors obtained anaesthetic posts in all four provinces over the course of the following decade. These included Mary Hearn (Victoria Hospital, Cork in 1922), Mary O’Leary (Dr Steevens’ Hospital, Dublin in 1923), and in Belfast during the mid – 1920s Claire Mary McGuckin (Mater Infirmorum) , also Olive Anderson and Maud McKnight (both Royal Victoria Hospital). Sarah O’Malley was appointed to the Central Hospital, Galway in 1929.

Dr Declan Warde, March 2020.


  • Ovenden E, in Bradshaw M (ed). Open Doors for Irishwomen. Dublin: Irish Central Bureau for the Employment of Women, 1907.
  • Webb EGA. Report on Maternity and Child Welfare in Dublin County Borough. Dubl J Med Sc 1917; 144: 86-97.
  • Kearney N, Skehill C. Social Work in Ireland: Historical Perspectives. Dublin: Institute of Public Administration, 2005.
  • Kelly L, in MacLennan A, Mauger A (eds). Rickets and Irish Children: Dr Ella Webb and The Early Years of the Children’s Sunshine Home, 1925-1946. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2013.
  • Webb E. Ten Years’ Work at the Children’s Sunshine Home. Ir J Med Sc 1935; 7th Series, 113: 225-9.