Mary Curzon, champion of women’s healthcare

Portrait of Lady Mary Curzon

Mary Curzon, Vicereine of India, has long been viewed as the beautiful wife and perfect companion to her husband George Nathaniel Curzon, who served as Viceroy of India 1899-1905. But there was much more to her than the glamour, grace and beauty that she undoubtedly possessed and which is evident in the portraits of her in the collection at Kedleston.

Mary is perhaps most famously associated with the spectacular and dazzling peacock dress she wore at the State Ball, held in the Red Fort in Delhi, in honour of the Coronation of Edward VII as Emperor of India. This was the highlight of the magnificent celebrations of the Delhi Durbar in January 1903.

Lady Curzon wore this dress in Delhi at the greatest pageant in history / NT 107881
The peacock dress at Kedleston Hall
Lady Curzon wore this dress in Delhi at the greatest pageant in history / NT 107881

Renowned for her great personal tact and warmth, together with an ability to put others at ease, she was encouraged by Queen Victoria to use her position as Vicereine to support the women of India – especially their training in medicine.

Medical training

In these efforts Mary trod in the footsteps of her immediate predecessor, Hariot Hamilton Blackwood, Marchioness of Dufferin (1843 -1946) who as Vicereine established the National Association for Supplying Female Medical Aid to the Women of India in 1885, known as the Countess of Dufferin Fund.

Lady Dufferin’s fundraising efforts, which included financial support from people in both Britain and India, enabled female doctors, nurses and midwives to be trained to serve women during pregnancy and illness. This meant women’s health could be protected in a society where religious practices and taboos prevented them from being medically treated by men.

Only a month after her arrival in India in 1899, Mary became Chair of the Dufferin Fund and letters sent back to her family in America record visits to local hospitals in the company of the family’s surgeon Colonel Ernest Fenn, who also served on the Dufferin Fund committee.

Midwives

While keen to support hospitals, Mary also recognised that some women were reluctant to attend them due to the caste system and the practice of purdah. So instead she promoted midwives working directly in the community, gaining support from Queen Victoria for this approach. Following the death of the Queen, Mary established the Victoria Scholarships in the monarch’s name and soon raised £50,000 from the country’s Princes and Maharanis for these purposes.

Sandalwood casket

A beautiful wooden casket, largely lost among the numerous other objects in the Eastern Museum, acknowledges one of Mary’s many efforts to support women’s health. It was presented to her on 10 December 1900 when she the opened the Lady Curzon Female Hospital during a tour of Bangalore in Mysore, now present-day Karnataka in the south west India. The new hospital included two wards for different castes, a maternity ward and a dispensary for women and children, all set within colonnades.

Sandalwood casket presented to Mary Curzon
A sandalwood casket carved with women, birds and mythical creatures amongst a swirling floral design and a brass plaque
Sandalwood casket presented to Mary Curzon

The box, made from srigandha sandalwood, known for its fine grain and yellow-brown colour, is richly carved with mythical animals, lions, deer and birds set amid swirling floral patterns. The design also incorporates three Hindu deities set in medallions on the lid - Hanuman, Krishna and perhaps Lakshmi whose various attributes include compassion, tenderness, faith, charity and service.

The box opens to reveal a blue velvet and silk-lined interior containing an address made by the five Indian donors to the project which acknowledged Mary’s deep interest in the ‘welfare of our Sisters’.

Inside the casket
Sandlawood casket with lid open to reveal blue velvet interior and large paper scroll
Inside the casket

At a time when nurses and other healthcare professionals are very much in the public eye it is interesting to reflect on the role of this remarkable woman.