Pioneering force for women in medicine

Beulah Bewley obituary: Born September 2nd, 1929 – died January 20th, 2018

Beulah Bewley: a popular lecturer and renowned for both the academic support and pastoral care she gave students.

Beulah Bewley: a popular lecturer and renowned for both the academic support and pastoral care she gave students.


Beulah Bewley was a pioneering force in the advancement of women in medicine during her long and distinguished career as a paediatrician and specialist in public health. Born Beulah Rosemary Knox in Derry, she wanted to be a doctor from the ago of five. Her family doctor nurtured her interest by letting her accompany him on home visits in his pony and trap during the second World War.

Her father, John Knox, was an Ulster Bank official and her mother, Ina Charles, was a wealthy Ulster Protestant heiress (Beulah’s maternal grandfather made a lot of money on the Chicago stock exchange).

The middle daughter of three, Beulah Knox was brought up in a spacious Edwardian house in Bond’s Hill with a nanny, maid, cleaner/laundry woman and a part-time chauffeur. She and her sisters, Eleanor (older by 18 months) and Maureen (younger by 14 months) were known as the “fighting Knoxes” due to their frequent arguments.

The family moved as her father took up positions as Ulster Bank manager in Letterkenny, Kilkenny and Sligo. During this time, Beulah went to boarding school in Cambridge House, Ballymena, Co Antrim, and was a day pupil at the Loreto Convent in Kilkenny. Bewley attended Alexandra College in Milltown, Dublin from 1943-1947.

Qualified in 1953

She studied medicine at Trinity College Dublin and qualified as a doctor in 1953. In 1955, she married psychiatrist Thomas Bewley, whom she had met during her studies. The couple lived in a rented flat near Essex while they both worked at St James’s Rush Green hospital for infectious diseases. After a year in the United States they relocated to Dublin, where their first child, Susan, was born. They subsequently moved to the UK.

Bewley worked part time for 10 years when her five children Susan, Sarah, Louisa, Henry and Emma were young. Beulah and Thomas were good friends with the author Jennifer Johnston and the late orthopaedic surgeon Paul Osterberg, and spent many family holidays at his home in Hillsborough.

When her youngest daughter, Emma, was three, Beulah returned to full-time education, becoming the first woman to graduate with an MSc in social medicine from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine in 1969. She went on to become a senior lecturer at the school and ran the master’s degree in public health there for many years.

She was a popular lecturer and renowned for both the academic support and pastoral care she gave the students. Her advice for a long, healthy life was: don’t smoke, don’t drink too much, keep active and eat healthy (non-processed) foods. But she was also keenly aware of the social determinants of health and how being born into poverty and disadvantage impacted on your health throughout your life.

Other accolades included her role as president of the Medical Women’s Federation, treasurer at the General Medical Council, and a prominent researcher into the effects of smoking on children (her research found that even one cigarette a day damaged the respiratory system of young people).

Family planning

She supported the 1967 Abortion Act in the UK, aware of the dangers of illegal/unsafe abortions in England at that time. She also ran high-profile projects on family planning and social events in which she rubbed shoulders with royalty and film stars such as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

Beulah Bewley retired at 64. She was made a dame of the British empire in the new year’s honours list for 2000, for her services to women doctors. In 2002, she was conferred with an honorary degree by TCD. She served on the tercentenary board of the School of Medicine at Trinity from 2007-2012.

Her autobiography, My Life as a Woman and Doctor, edited by her eldest daughter, obstetrician Susan Bewley, published in 2016, gives great insight into the social history of Ireland in the 20th century – including the class and religious divides. The book also provides many anecdotes on her college days, her family life and her career in medicine and public health in a male-dominated era.

In retirement, Beulah Bewley returned to piano lessons, which had given her great pleasure as a child, and enjoyed taking opera holidays with her husband. However, in her 80s she was forced to slow down due to dementia.

Beulah Bewley is survived by her husband, Thomas, and four of her five children – Susan, Louisa, Henry and Emma – and her granddaughter Hannah. Her daughter Sarah died at age 44 from complications of Down syndrome.