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George Boole's Radical Ideas On Childbirth

Ethel Lilian - youngest daughter of George Boole

Ethel Lilian - youngest daughter of George Boole

  • 11 Aug 2017

George Boole had strong opinions about pain in childbirth:  In the newly discovered letter (from the Boole Papers in the Boole library at UCC) written by Boole on 21 June 1856 thanking  Dr. John Bury, a Medical Doctor from Chester, England, for his advice during their first pregnancy  

"I think that a great deal of suffering, certainly to the mother and probably to the child, is due to the neglect of Nature’s plainest dictates."

The prevailing philosophy in Victorian times and consistent with Christian thought was that women are meant to feel pain in labour for Divine purposes. This was why there was such an outcry when, on 7 April 1853, Dr John Snow anesthetized Queen Victoria when Prince Leopold was born.1  It was said:

"He had no right to rob God of the deep, earnest cries’ of women in childbirth!"

Mary Boole breastfed her baby girl, Mary Ellen, later familiarly nicknamed “Puss”. Boole was present for the first latching on of the baby to her mother’s breasts.

The Booles were married on 11 September 1855 and Mary Ellen (Puss) was born on 19 June 1856, a honeymoon baby. Their second daughter, Margaret, was born in September 1858. In a letter to her sister-in-law in England, we can see Mary Boole’s formidable writing skills, which she later put to use in writing her own books on education and psychology. It is also worth noting the precocious observational and linguistic skills of the now 3-year-old Mary Ellen that attest to her intelligence and later brilliance.

"…I wish you could see Puss with the Baby. She is fond of it to a most distressing degree and keeps me in a constant fidget for fear her eye will be put out by one of her caresses. She got very angry with it once for “biting my own Mamma”. I thought it necessary to explain that Baby was only getting her breakfast, not biting me. (I thought Puss might get jealous at its not being punished, as she would have been). Then she examined further and exclaimed in great surprise “She’s getting her milk out of a strawberry!"

Boole died prematurely at only forty-nine years of age, after catching a chill while walking to College in heavy rain and lecturing all day in wet clothes. He was buried in St Michael’s Church, Blackrock, Cork, when his youngest daughter Ethel Lillian was only seven months old. At the age of ninety, E.L. Voynich (as she was now known  and renowned author of the revolutionary book The Gadfly) recounted an anecdote about her famous father related to the birth of her eldest sister, Mary Ellen. She told of him knocking on the doors of the cottages in the back streets near University College Cork, joyfully telling the locals of the birth of his beautiful baby girl.2   She adds,

"I was only a few months old when he died, but after all, if I knew nothing about him except this story, I should feel proud to be his daughter."


A version of this story appeared on Hektoen International – A Journal of Medical Humanities  

Written by: C Anthony Ryan,Department of Neonatology, Cork University Maternity Hospital, Cork, Ireland; Desmond MacHale, School of Mathematical Sciences, University College Cork (UCC), Ireland & Yvonne Cohen


  1. Caton: What A Blessing She Had Chloroform: The medical and social response to the pain of childbirth from 1800 to the present. Yale University Press; 1 edition (June 10, 1999)
  2. MacHale D. The Life and Work of George Boole: A Prelude to the Digital Age. Cork University Press. 


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