Catherine Hollingworth may have been a visionary and steely pioneer of the speech and language therapy profession, but in the small Scottish town where she was born she was known straightforwardly as ‘the speaking wifie’.
As part of a drive to recognise and celebrate the achievements of ‘weel kent Brechiners’, Steve Nicoll of the Friends of Brechin Town House gave a fascinating talk on Catherine’s life, work and family history last week. Born in 1904, Catherine came from a family with a culture of high achievement and entrepreneurship, with one of her ancestors credited for taking a stand against the practice of body snatching for medical education in the 1800s.
Catherine’s independent income meant she was able to pursue her interest in drama through studying at RADA. She may have simply developed her drama teaching, but a road traffic accident in Kirriemuir in 1933 led her to use her learning to address the injury to her own speech. This ignited an interest in speech therapy at a time when speech therapists were self-taught and very thin on the ground.
In 1940, while another pioneer of the profession Lionel Logue was supporting King George VI in London, Catherine was appointed as the first Superintendent of Speech and Drama and Speech Therapy in Aberdeen. According to Steve Nicoll, who has spoken to a number of Catherine’s students, her attitude to teaching was disciplined, structured, hard but fair – and she was always right. However, the core values she sought to develop through drama teaching would not be out of place with educational thinking of today: confidence, communication, citizenship, civility, language, personal discipline and personal development. Significantly, Catherine was a great believer in the importance of peer learning, and kept the number of adults involved to a minimum.
In her later years, Catherine came out of retirement to do voluntary work in Dundee with people who had had a stroke. Although some of the specific methods were clearly of their time, it is telling that Catherine recognised the void when people with aphasia were ‘left’ at the end of speech therapy with no help, and she sought in a variety of ways to help re-build their confidence, self-esteem and social contact.
The profession has come a long way, but being aware of where we have come from can be as inspiring for the ‘speaking wifies’ of today as recognising where we are now and where we are going.