Lilla Robb’s father was a linen merchant, owner and managing director of H. M. Robb & Co. Ltd. She was educated at Methodist College Belfast where she played (field) hockey for the girls’ First XI for two seasons 1906 – 8. In that first season the ultimate winners knocked out her team in the semi-final. But a contemporary report in M.C.B. Magazine states that on 12 March 1908 ‘Methody’ won the Ulster Schools’ Challenge Cup Final by one goal to nil. Georgina Thompson scored that goal “shooting into the net from Miss Robb’s centre”.
Elizabeth Montgomery (“Lilla”) Robb – Mrs. Wallace Harland b. 22nd November 1889, Lisburn Co. Antrim m. 11th July 1922, Warrenpoint, Co. Down d. 4th January 1973, Kilmacolm, Renfrewshire
Lilla had been very single-minded in working to become a doctor. In 1908, she enrolled to read medicine at Queen's University Belfast. She graduated MB BCh BAO, in 1914. There were only two women in ‘her year’. Her first house job was in the Ulster Hospital for Children and Women, Templemore Avenue, Belfast. The salary rate is of some interest – being restricted to £6 per annum. Then she moved to Lurgan Hospital. Her lasting memory of that post was that she was fed burned tapioca pudding every day for 6 months!
The whole Robb family, which included the Thornton and Hadden cousins in Portadown, was involved in the work of the Methodist Church in Ireland. Lilla had always planned to be a Medical Missionary with the Methodist Church ‘overseas’. With the Great War reaching new savagery on land, the U-boat war was just beginning to affect the high seas too. Despite these very real dangers she sailed for India in September 1915 and did not return until 1921. She worked for those years in Hassan Hospital, Mysore State, South India.
She married Wallace on 11 July 1922 but continued her full-time medical career until 1962, always using her maiden name – Dr. Lilla Robb. She was Medical Superintendent of the Malone Place Maternity Home from 1922 until 1955. This was a home for unmarried mothers, known originally, and somewhat mysteriously, as The Midnight Mission. But the obstetric work gradually became much more varied and ‘Malone Place’ undertook training for domiciliary midwives (Part Two training). She was involved in both teaching and examining. In 1956 in recognition of her 30+ years of service, the South Belfast Hospital Management Committee, under the Chairmanship of Mr. H Ian McClure, appointed her as honorary governor of Malone Place Hospital. The Committee credited her “with having provided exceptionally valuable services in midwifery and teaching”. She also ran a small single-handed general practice from her home, 44, Ulsterville Avenue, Belfast. She was quite tiny beside her husband, being 5’ 3”tall. As years went on she became increasingly over-weight, until management of the late onset of the familial (Robb/Donnelly) disease of diabetes forced a reversal.
Wallace, Lilla and their 3 boys at “44”, circa 1936
Wallace’s Wife - Lilla
She gave many years’ devoted service as a Sunday-School teacher in University Road
Methodist Church Belfast, and also, from 1951, as a Governor of the Methodist College
Belfast – the very first woman to be appointed to this post. She did have to take
some time off work for her two pregnancies in 1923 and 1926 (twins). Her three sons
John Harford (1923) and identical twins William Arthur and Robert Wallace (‘Robin’)
(1926) called her ‘Doc’ or ‘Wee Doc’. ‘The boys’ knew that these were terms of loving
endearment; but some of the aunts were very disapproving, because they regarded the
nickname as being grossly disrespectful. It stuck!
As with her husband before her, Parkinson’s Disease became totally crippling, and
then she suffered the added insult of a fracture hip. Her house in Sherburn, Durham
had to be sold and her daughter-in-law May and her son Robin then cared for her.
So she returned with them to Belfast in 1970. She spent the last year of her life
in the care of her daughter-in-law Brenda and son Arthur, in Kilmacolm, near Glasgow.
She died in a nursing home. Her funeral service, conducted by Rev. Eric Gallagher,
took place in University Road Methodist Church Belfast – the very same church in
which she gave her valedictory address before departing for India in 1916. She was
cremated in Belfast and her ashes placed with her husband’s in Bessbrook.
One of the earliest of women graduates, she was a pioneer in many aspects of medicine,
including what she liked to call her ‘Anti-natal Clinics' (always slyly underlining
the ‘i’) – she lived in hope that this very new preventive medicine could hide behind
her better known Antenatal Clinics. This subtle title was chosen to avoid any stigmatisation
likely in that era. They became known as Family Planning Clinics once time allowed
contraception to be spoken about more openly. Even after moving to County Durham
in 1963 she was employed in local authority baby clinics, and so achieved a remarkable
goal of working as a doctor for over 50 years. - a very rare diamond indeed.