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ALEEN CUST (1868 - 1937)

Updated: Apr 6


Figure 1: Aleen Cust.

The Wells Journal announced the death of Aileen [Aleen] Cust in 1937, noting that her demise ‘had robbed the ranks of women pioneers of one who throughout her career was an outstanding figure.’[1]  The obituary was not exaggerated or embellished as the groundbreaking Irish woman was the first female to become a veterinary surgeon in Ireland and the United Kingdom.

 

Early Life

Aleen Isabel Cust was born on 7 February 1868 at Cordangan Manor, County Tipperary.  She was the fourth child of six, and the first daughter of Sir Leopold and Lady Isabel Cust. Her parents married in Shropshire in 1863 where their eldest child, Charles was born on 27 February 1864.  Shortly after her father brought his young family to Tipperary where he was a land agent for the Smith-Barry family.  Leopold Cust died on 3 March 1878 at Cordangan and subsequently, the family returned to England.  Further tragedy ensued as her older brother, Percy, died at Sandhurst in 1884, aged fourteen and Brownlow died in 1893, aged twenty-eight.  Nevertheless, the remarkable Aleen remained resolute and decided to become a veterinary surgeon, despite her mother’s disapproval.  She enrolled in the New Veterinary College, Edinburgh, completing her training in 1900.  Although she is described as a veterinary surgeon on the 1901 English census, ‘the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons held the opinion that its charter would not permit the admission of women to membership.’  It was only in 1922, following the passage of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act in 1919, that she was finally awarded her diploma in December 1922.[2]


First Job

Following the completion of her training, she moved to Roscommon, Ireland where she was offered a job with veterinarian William Byrne.  Later, on 4 November 1905, the Western People noted that the meeting of the Galway County Council was of ‘considerable interest’ with lively discussion surrounding the appointment of a veterinary inspector for Mountbellow Union.[3]  Two candidates were proposed and seconded, Aleen Cush and a Mr Moffett but as the Chairman, Mr Glynn, pointed out, only one was qualified.  However, Mr J. C. McDonnell interjected, advising Mr Glynn that it was not prudent to raise the question of qualification, he argued that although Aleen Cush was not a member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, she was the best candidate for the role.  The majority of the other council members concurred and she was duly elected on a vote of fourteen to ten.   However, the Department of Agriculture refused to sanction her appointment. 



Figure 2: The Vote.

Aleen Cush was innovative, a trait Galway County Council had recognised.  In 1905 she had visited the government farms of Hungary, Serbia and Bosnia and subsequently gave a lecture in April 1906 which was accompanied by a ‘magnificent series of magic lantern reproductions of photographs; which she had taken in Europe which may have helped her finally obtain an appointment.[4]  On 30 June the Tuam Herald reported that the Department of Agriculture had written to Galway County Council sanctioning the appointment of Aleen Cust as veterinary inspector.[5]


The Great War

Following the outbreak of the Great War, Cust accepted a position with the Expeditionary Army and applied for and was granted a leave of absence in 1915 with Galway County Council wishing her ‘”God Speed”’. [6]   She drove her car with the YMCA in France and in 1917 held a position in the Royal Army Veterinary Corps,  She was awarded the Victory and British War Medal on the termination of her engagement, 10 November 1918.[7] 


Figure 3: Award of #WW1 medals.

As noted previously, after the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act she returned to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, sitting for practical examination, and on 20 December 1922, ‘patience and persistence were rewarded, and the first woman graduate gained the Diploma.’[8]  She returned to Ireland for a time but sold her practice in 1924 and retired to Hampshire, England.


On 23 December 1936 she boarded the ship E Ros bound for Jamaica where she intended to spend time with friends. [9] 


Figure 4: Aleen Cust, passenger lists.

However, a few weeks later she died of a heart attack at Half Way Tree, Saint Andrew and was buried nearby in an unmarked grave.[10] Her will was probated on 14 April 1937.  Aleen Cust left a sum of £29,915 and despite her rather colourful past with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, she bequeathed £5,000 to fund a scholarship in research, and if candidates were of equal merit preference should be given to women. [11]   In addition, a legacy of £100 was to endow a kennel at the College in memory of her miniature Cocker Spaniels.  Her will also noted her desire that only horse-drawn vehicles should be used at her funeral.[12]  However, the location of Aleen Cust’s grave was unknown for over half a century until the endeavors of people in both Ireland and Jamaica discovered her final resting place at Saint Andrew’s Church, Kingston in December 2021.  A simple white cross and black plaque now mark the grave of the remarkable Aleen Cust whose motto was ‘”Custom is the brick wall against which feeble minds come to a standstill, and hinder the progress of the world.”’[13]


Figure 5: Aleen's grave in Jamaica.

 

[1] Wells Journal and Somerset and West of England Advertiser, 19 February 1937.

[2] Leicester Evening Mail, 21 December 1922.

[3] Western People, 4 November 1905.

[4] Westmeath Independent, 28 April 1906.

[5] Tuam Herald, 30 June 1906.

[6] Skibbereen Eagle, 27 February 1915.

[7] in the UK, World War I Service Medal and Award Rolls, 1914-1920.

[8] The Vote, 2 February 1923.

[9] UK and Ireland, Outward Passenger Lists.

[10] Jamaica, Civil Registration Birth, Marriage, and Death Records.

[11] England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations).

[12] Halifax Evening Courier, 17 April 1938.

[13] The Vote, 2 February 1923.


 

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