The happy bespectacled face of Mary Frances Josephine “Mousie” Baird appears in metal at the climax of the Millennium railings on the Falls Road perimeter of the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, representing 100 years of the institution on its present site. She has died at 102 after an active life – she thought it was “not bad” when as a 92- year-old she regularly journeyed from Ulster to visit her 94-year-old brother in Somerset. She did not much like the photograph on which the railings portrait was based. “It shows a face with a marshalling yard of lines,” she said.
The future Chief Nursing Officer for Belfast never intended to be a nurse. On leaving school she took up an apprenticeship with a well-known Belfast milliner. But her mother contracted arthritis at an early age and nursing her convinced Baird as a teenager that she wanted to train as a nurse. She persuaded her parents to put up the money to enable her to become a probationer nurse at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, in 1927. She was 20. During her training a sister persuaded her to join the Territorial Army Nursing Service.
Baird trained (unpaid) as a midwife at the Rotunda Maternity Hospital in Dublin – grateful mothers whom she delivered in the Dublin slums named daughters after her – and in 1995 she was invited as a guest of honour to the Rotunda’s 250th anniversary dinner.
On returning from midwifery training to Belfast she first undertook private nursing, caring for the famous surgeon Sir William Whitla, who endowed the Whitla Halls at Ulster University and the Methodist College, Belfast, and was confined to his room for four years after a stroke.
In 1931 Baird joined Belfast Public Health Department. Northern Ireland’s first health visitor, she set up clubs for mothers and babies, providing food for those who could not afford it. When the Second World War came, Baird, as a Territorial, was called up in Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Service in 1941, first serving as a sister in Bangor Hospital, Co. Down.
She was transferred to the south of England in preparation for D-Day and was one of the first nurses sent to France, landing on Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches. She followed the army through to Germany and was awarded the Field Marshall Montgomery Certificate “for outstanding devotion to duty in North West Europe”. But she would never talk about her wartime experiences.
Back in Belfast Public Health Department, she became superintendent of public health visitors, Queen’s District Nurses and Midwives – chief lady of the community services. When the NHS was set up in 1948 and the Northern Ireland Hospitals Authority established, nurses emp-loyed by it could not be appointed to the board – doctors had a different form of contract and could. But Baird, employed by the local authority, was eligible and was appointed. Nurses were pleased to have someone who knew so well how to represent them.
Active in the Royal College of Nursing, Baird was chairman of the Northern Ireland Branch (not president of the RCN, as a Royal Victoria Hospital booklet about the Millennium railings states). As a member of the editorial committee she ensured that articles in the Royal Victoria Hospital Nurses League were carefully scrutinised.
Baird also ranged beyond nursing. She sat on Ministry of Labour and National Insurance Tribunals, was a member of the Public Health Administrators Group and the Local Government Superannuation Committee, served on the executive of Belmont British Legion and supported the Northern Ireland Mental Health Association and Belfast Business and Professional Women’s Club. She was appointed an MBE in 1964.
She helped set up a home for retired nurses in North Belfast. The suspicions of soldiers were naturally aroused in the days of the Troubles when a car was driven slowly by a woman and a nun. Baird and her companion reassured the patrol by opening the boot and revealing the tureen of soup for the nurses which they were anxious not to spill, and explaining that the nun was also a nurse.
The nickname “Mousie” did not reflect Baird’s appearance. Her family called her “Maisie” but a godchild found “Mousie” easier to say and it stuck. She adored children and they adored her. She always dressed immaculately and as a skilled seamstress made many of her clothes. Her other hobby was gardening. When she moved from her home near Stormont to sheltered housing she made a garden in a window box.
Unmarried, Baird however remembered a wartime boy friend, Joe, who, coming from Dublin to visit her in London, and walking down Oxford Street with her wearing her uniform, didn’t know what to do when the squaddies kept giving her smart salutes. “Just tip your hat and smile,” Baird told him.
Mary Frances Josephine Baird, nurse administrator: born Belfast 22 May 1907; MBE 1964; died Belfast 25 June 2009.