Dr Edgar Ritchie – pioneering obstetrician who advocated for women’s health

An Appreciation

Dr Edgar Ritchie (October 23rd, 1931–March 19th, 2024) was a pioneering consultant gynaecologist and obstetrician in Cork, providing services for women at a time when women had few other options. His sacrificial work as a missionary doctor in Biafra in the late 1960s was instrumental in his campaigning for a national response to support the Biafran people, which was foundational to establishing Concern Worldwide.

Edgar was born in Tralee to the Rev Hugh J Ritchie and Jennie Hosford on October 23rd, 1931. When Edgar was 11, he was sent to Wesley College, Dublin, as a boarder. Edgar was a keen sportsman, playing cricket and tennis and captaining the senior rugby team. He was head boy at Wesley and made many lifelong friends. Edgar would tell of Sundays where he and other students were invited to tea at the home of Nobel Prize winner Ernest Walton. During these afternoons, Walton would entertain the students with mathematical puzzles. Edgar later attributed this problem-solving training to his mathematics scholarship allowing him to attend Trinity College Dublin.

Edgar recalls that at Trinity, he “was so fed up with mathematics – theory was laborious”, and he questioned his continued pursuit of mathematics. In conversation with an old school friend and fellow Trinity medical student, he was persuaded to pursue a career in medicine. At Trinity, Edgar was a keen member of the Christian Union, and had many happy memories of exploring and sharing his faith. Toward the end of his medical studies, he spent a month working at the Rotunda Hospital. It was here in the deprived tenements of 1950s Dublin that the young trainee doctor encountered the poverty and the needs of women of the inner-city. This experience had a significant impact leading him to pursue obstetrics.

At Oldham in the UK, Edgar trained under Prof Patrick Steptoe. Following qualification as an obstetrician and gynaecologist Edgar applied to the Methodist Missionary Society to be a medical missionary doctor in Nigeria.

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On arriving in Nigeria, Edgar was stationed near Enugu for a few months before being appointed as head of maternity and gynaecology at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Umuahia, in the Biafra region of Nigeria. During this time Edgar developed the surgical practice at the hospital and wrote several medical papers documenting his work. It was in Nigeria that Dr Ritchie met a young missionary midwife from West Cork, Jean Kingston.

They were married in Drimoleague on June 2nd, 1966, before returning to Nigeria.

In 1967, the southern part of Nigeria declared independence triggering the Biafran war. Jean and her young daughter Joy escaped the fighting by canoe, but Edgar felt committed to his patients and stayed on at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Later in 1969 as the war neared its end, Nigerian troops closed in on Umuahia, and Edgar was evacuated.

On returning to Ireland, Edgar actively supported the setting up of Concern Worldwide, which at the time was called Africa Concern. This was a collaborative initiative with the Holy Ghost Fathers, the O’Loughlin Kennedys and others who were moved to help the besieged and starving people of Biafra.

In the early 1970s, Edgar was offered a post at the Victoria Hospital, Cork.

He recognised the significant need for family planning when one of his patients died following an unplanned pregnancy.

Subsequently, Dr Ritchie and a small group of volunteers began the pioneering work that led to establishing the Cork branch of the Irish Family Planning Association. Ironically, it was public criticism that led to a steady stream of referrals. Subsequently, the Irish government brought in legislation legalising the availability of contraception.

Life as a doctor was extremely busy, Edgar recalled that he had about 300 deliveries a year with 12 hours off duty each week, between 6pm on Thursday night and 6am on Friday morning. These Thursday evenings became the evening that Jean and Edgar entertained, often inviting colleagues or other friends to dinner. During these years, Jean complemented Edgar’s work by holding prenatal classes in their home.

Edgar’s personal faith was instrumental in all he did. Edgar, his wife and family were actively engaged in Cork Methodist Church.

Edgar will be remembered for his gentle kindness, his visionary work in Africa and for his pioneering work on behalf of women in Cork.

In reflecting on his life, he shared: “I look back with gratefulness for the opportunities that were offered to me that I didn’t deserve.”

Dr Edgar Ritchie is survived by his loving wife Jean of 57 years; daughter Joy (Brookes), sons David and Paul, son-in law Norman, daughters-in-law Joy and Caroline and his seven grandchildren Jonathan and Emily, Joshua and Hannah, Anya, Ronan and Sian; and his brother Roy. He is predeceased by his brother Rev Derek Ritchie.

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