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Legislation to tackle the rise in infant mortality

Growing concern

The turn of the century saw growing concern about the rise in infant mortality. Evidence showed that, while overall mortality rates had fallen in the late 1800s, infant mortality started to rise in 1896.

Although the trend did start to reverse in the early 1900s, it was suggested that infant mortality was affected by malnutrition and poor hygiene. In parallel, there were also growing concerns about the number of young men deemed physically unfit for military service during the Boer War.

Evidence and legislation

Against this backdrop, the Interdepartmental Committee on Physical Deterioration was commissioned in 1903 to explore the causes of the nation's poor health. The committee found a link between lack of nutrition and poor health, and estimated that a third of children were malnourished.

The lack of nutrition and poor physical health of children prompted the introduction of the Education (Provision of Meals) Act 1906, which gave local authorities the power to provide free school meals.

In 1907, the Education (administrative provisions) Act permitted local authorities to undertake medical examinations and provide treatment for school children. It was intended that children would have comprehensive examinations at three points during their schooling, covering physical, mental and dental wellbeing as well as cleanliness.


The National Archives.
Living in 1901: Hygiene and disease.
The National Archives; nd.

Boyd Barrett J.
The Medical Examination of School Children.
Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review.
2013; 2(6): 73–80.

Garrett E, Galley C, Shelton N, Woods R (eds.)
Infant mortality: a continuing social problem.
Ashgate Publishing Ltd; 2006.