Labor of love for an adventurous aunt
Briton returns to Prague to continue research for biography
Posted: October 9, 2013
It was in the early 1990s that Clare Brockbank, a Briton, came to Prague and began researching the extraordinary life of her late aunt, Eileen O'Brien.
Now, more than two decades on, Brockbank, 79, has come to the Czech capital again and continued to find background material for a biography of her aunt she plans to complete.
In 1921, O'Brien spent seven months in what was then Czechoslovakia employed by the Czechoslovakian League of Red Cross Societies as she traveled with a team of Czech doctors to help prevent the spread of illnesses such as tuberculosis.
As part of an eventful spell in Europe from 1919 onwards, O'Brien also worked as a sanitary inspector in Serbia, as a transport officer for health clinics in Slovakia, and as part of a team aiming to reduce the spread of typhus in Poland. Additionally, she worked in Geneva and Paris for the League of Red Cross Societies.
During a visit to Prague in September, Brockbank, a widow, was trying to find out why her aunt was awarded a medal by the Czechoslovak Red Cross in 1921. In particular, Brockbank is interested in whether the accolade was presented to all those who had worked for the organization at the time, or whether her aunt had done something in particular to merit the medal.
The Red Cross in the Czech Republic is contacting retired staff to try to find out more about why the medals were presented.
Whatever the reasons behind the award, Brockbank said her aunt, a member of the Quakers, a movement of Christian origin whose beliefs include pacifism, was a dedicated woman who tried to improve conditions for people at a difficult time after the First World War. "As a Quaker, she was of course completely anti-war and absolutely [for] peace. All they did was mop up after the stupidity of war, with particular emphasis on innocent children," she said.
O'Brien, who was the sister of Brockbank's father, was born in Cumbria in the north of England, where Brockbank herself lives, and worked as a sanitary inspector in England before going overseas.
She spent seven months working for the Czech division of the Czechoslovakian Red Cross Society, traveling by truck with a team of doctors, helping with lectures and demonstrations about child health and tuberculosis.
Later, traveling by train, she carried out similar work for the American Red Cross in Poland and the Slovak division of the Czechoslovakian Red Cross Society.
"It was a brilliant idea in that she went criss-crossing all over Poland and Slovakia with this train, stopping at every village. My aunt's job was to get people to come and meet them in the village hall," said Brockbank, a mother of three and grandmother of five who worked as a secretary and also completed a degree in history and philosophy with the United Kingdom's Open University.
The Czech Red Cross in Prague said O'Brien's work, carried out in the difficult post-war period, was of great value. "Her participation in the missions was immensely beneficial, especially after the World War I, when the European countries were affected by the consequences of the war, such as epidemics, malnutrition or lack of hygiene," a spokeswoman for the organization said.
O'Brien later worked in the United States and Canada for Sun Life Assurance, returning to the United Kingdom at the outbreak of the Second World War. She never married nor had children, being one of the many women left single after a generation of young men was devastated in the war.
As research for the biography, Brockbank has also been to the United States, while in the mid 1990s she went to Switzerland, where she visited the headquarters of the Red Cross in Geneva. Here, there were bulletins that featured the work of O'Brien's group.
One Red Cross newsletter uncovered by Brockbank gives fascinating detail about what life was like in Czechoslovakia shortly after the First World War. In Raková, a village near the town of Čadca in Slovakia, most cottages are said to be made of wood and to have "one, or at the most, two rooms, containing a rough table, a bench and a bed, the latter resembling a wooden box frame," according to a report by a doctor who visited the region where O'Brien worked.
There were children and adults suffering from goitre, a condition in which the thyroid gland in the neck is enlarged, usually as a result of iodine deficiency, and there was "much sickness and mortality" among the children in the country. One district saw 200 people die of starvation and some areas suffered a "great shortage of doctors."
Other sources for Brockbank's research include her aunt's diaries, which have been transcribed by her cousin Lawrence Lidbetter, a retired dentist who lives in the east of England.
Brockbank has written the first chapter of the biography, but admits that she enjoys the research more than the writing. Turning all the information into lively prose is a challenge. "Your head is so full of facts. You think that you've got to get it correct, and it reads like a school essay. It's difficult to do," said Brockbank, who also undertook sightseeing trips during her recent visit to the Czech Republic, but whose primary purpose for her trip was to work on the biography.
Although work on the book is challenging, Brockbank is keen to ensure the life of an adventurous and benevolent person she is admires is chronicled for posterity. "I think she was just an extremely good woman trying to do what she could to alleviate the distress of war," she said.
Daniel Bardsley can be reached at