Sr Dr Maura Lynch, 1938–2017
In Uganda on 9 December 2017, a celebration was planned for the golden jubilee of the arrival in Africa of Youghal-born Sr Dr Maura Lynch, who devoted her life to improving the lives of African women. Sadly, she died suddenly in Kampala on that very day.
Maura was the fourth of the nine children of a teacher and a post office employee, and the family moved frequently. She joined the Medical Missionaries of Mary in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary at the age of 17. She studied medicine in UCD and came in the top three in her graduating class in 1965, and received a gold medal for surgery. She completed a Diploma in obstetrics and gynaecology at the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in London in 1966 and a Diploma in Tropical Medicine and Public Health in Lisbon in 1967. She would return to Dublin in 1985 to train as a surgeon.
Having completed her medical training, she left for Chiulo Mission Hospital in Angola, where she had to work across the range of medicine, surgery, obstetrics, gynaecology and paediatrics, and work as a lecturer and examiner in the Nurses Training School. She and only one other medical Sister had the care of 200 patients, many of whom suffered from TB, leprosy, or injuries sustained during the Angolan civil war. She and her colleagues risked their lives travelling the rough terrain of southern Angola by bicycle, sheltering in the undergrowth as aerial bombings pummelled the ground around them.
In 1987, she was assigned to Kitovu Mission Hospital in Uganda as a consultant surgeon, obstetrician and gynaecologist. There, she conducted her pioneering obstetric fistula repair work, performing over 1,000 procedures between 1993 and 2007. In the words of Professor Bill Powderly, former Dean of UCD School of Medicine, it is ‘an astonishing record that one can confidently say will never be bettered’.
Sr Dr Maura found her vocation in obstetrics, and developed a love of Uganda and its people. It must have been hugely gratifying to her, then, to receive a unique Certificate of Residency for Life from the Ugandan government in recognition of her work. She was a founding member of the Association of Surgeons of East Africa, and pioneered innovative training programmes in obstetric fistula repair. She fundraised for a centre of excellence in the treatment of obstetric fistula in St Joseph’s Hospital, Kitovu; it opened in April 2005.
Her accolades were many. In 2009, she was nominated by the United Nations Population Fund (Uganda) as a leader in the fight against fistula; in 2013, she received an Honorary Fellowship from the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology; and in 2015, she was awarded the prestigious Council of Europe’s North–South Prize. She called for better education of girls and of medical staff to help the estimated 50–100,000 women affected annually by obstetric fistula, which is also linked to obstructed labour, reducing perinatal deaths. The 28-bed unit and dedicated operating theatre she established performs 250 operations per year; women are treated for free and, should they go on to become mothers, are offered free antenatal care and caesarean delivery.
Those who knew her spoke of her sense of fun, and her boundless energy; in 2013, she participated in a six-mile run to raise €5,000 for an overhead lamp for the operating theatre. Her position as a champion of African women’s healthcare is best expressed in the name given to her by her Ugandan patients: ‘Nakimuli’, meaning ‘Beautiful Flower’.
Sources: Joanna Lyall, ‘Maura Lynch: Fistula Fighter and Nun’, British Medical Journal, 360 (23 Mar. 2018); Irish Times, 23 Dec. 2017; ‘Sr. & Dr. Maura Lynch (1938–2017)’, https://digitalheritagecollections.rcsi.ie/rcsiwomen/sr-dr-maura-lynch-1938-2017/;‘Sr Dr Maura Lynch (1938–2017): Nakimuli–Beautiful Flower’, http://www.ucd.ie/medicine/ourcommunity/ouralumni/alumniprofilesinterviews/srdrmauralynch/.
Research by Dr Angela Byrne, DFAT Historian-in-Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum. Featured in the exhibition 'Blazing a Trail: Lives and Legacies of Irish Diaspora Women', a collaboration between Herstory, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.