‘Give a girl too much to do, she breaks down; give a boy too much, he doesn’t do it’

From the Archives: a girl who chooses university ‘finds her mind is a tangle of mathematical formulae, forces and pulleys’

The stress faced by exam students is no modern invention. Concern about the difficulties facing pupils was so great in 1891 that a column was launched to help them prepare. Overseen by Erasmus, “a gentleman of large experience in teaching”, for over four decades it explored a range of subjects and skills, and provided one-to-one critiques on essays, handwriting, and sample questions for school, university, and employment examinations.

In 1905 the “Molly Bawn” column warned about the “cramming” system, which forced a child “to work on until it becomes stupid, the prolonged effort of attention being both painful and exhausting...this strain must be injurious to the young brain, as well as detrimental to the health”.

As the annual academic workload increased, and impending exams exerted their pressure, both parents and students were proffered advice.

A few cold morning sponge baths previous to an exam were prescribed in instructions from “Medico” in 1908: “...do not be over-anxious. This will surely make you nervous. Get the following tonic made up: Easton’s syrup, one oz; water to 8 oz. A tablespoonful three times daily, after meals.”


Easton’s was a syrup of iron phosphate often dispensed as a mental tonic, which also contained strychnine and quinine – both regarded as stimulants.

In 1909 another reader about to sit exams was advised to take Easton’s with an infusion of the herb chiretta, and told “keep out in the fresh air as much as possible”.

Easton’s and air were still being prescribed in 1928. “If very nervous take the following tonic during the time approaching the exam. Take no stimulants whatever, but take an abundance of fresh air exercise, go to bed at a regular hour, and take your meals regular also: – Ammon brom, sixty grains; kali brom, sixty grains; syrup Easton, one oz; camphor water to make eight ozs. Mix. take one tablespoonful in water three times a day.”


However distasteful this concoction appears it still sounds more appetising than the ingredients of beef-fat, malt extract, egg, orange juice, iron and iodine, all encompassed in Virol. Its manufacturers told “every loving parent” in 1957 that the contents could keep their children up to scratch in school and exams.

On more than one occasion writers seemed unnecessarily perturbed about the ability of young women to cope with academic stress.

In 1923, “Education: Danger of Overworking Girls”, “EP” called for an end to exam pressure on girls, warning they would face nervous breakdown as they passed through a period of adolescent “mental lethargy” .

Our writer focused on an English report which claimed that “from 14-17 years, girls are not so strong physically as boys, and are more liable to mental and nervous strain than boys”.

“Indeed,”added EP, “it is little short of criminal the way girls are crammed to compete with, and often excel, their brothers in passing with honours examinations of matriculation standard at the early ages of 15 and 16. I have seen many such, victims of this vicious educational method, whose gaunt frames and haggard faces are an awful negation of their youth.

“The fact is the majority of girls are encouraged to be over conscientious just at the time when they should be allowed to relax…If you give a girl too much to do, she breaks down; if you give a boy too much to do, he doesn’t do it.”

Calling for a change in curriculum for girls, EP advocated that a domestic science course for female students would lessen “the nervous and physical strain of advanced academic study during the difficult period of adolescence…”

Spectres of Virgil

“Clouds of Work” in 1924 by ARF also voiced concerns that “the average girl is inclined to over-work”, and claimed the “ever-increasing number of girls who are choosing a university career brings fresh problems to many homes...her mind is a tangle of mathematical formulae, forces and pulleys, while at night her very dreams are disturbed by syllogisms of logic and spectres of Virgil”.

“It has been stated by a distinguished scholar,” wrote ARF, “that the human brain is incapable of assimilating more than six hours solid work each day, and that further effort is merely wasted energy and unnecessary labour.

“True, it is no easy task with ‘exam panic’ ringing in our ears to close our books and for a stated period each day to forget their existence; yet the effort is well worth while when it is remembered that even a brilliant degree is useless if after life if it is gained at the cost of health.”

“When The Children Face Exams”, published in June 1951, advised mothers about “getting the child through”.

“One can help the child in many unobtrusive ways – in fact, the more unobtrusive the better. Don’t nag. Don’t recall past failures. Don’t recall the brilliant achievements of others. This merely depresses the anxious child, and will do more harm than good.”

Suggesting that exam students be released from chores, our writer added: “You should see that the radio is turned down; and that the child has a peaceful room to study in. If the study room is a shared bedroom make it your business to see that the other members of the family don’t indulge in their wonted romps under the nose of the victim who must study.”


Our health correspondent in 1932 had some sterner directions. “A school child working for an examination should be carefully watched over by the parents. There ought to be a time for going to bed settled for the whole term, and that time should be rigidly adhered to. No begging for just another half-hour. No leaving the child alone to go to bed as he chooses.

“As the clock strikes all books should be shut. The body learns regularity and gets to like it; if the brain is put to rest at the same time every night it goes off to sleep like clock-work.

“At times the watchful parent will see signs of over work, and perhaps of over-anxiety. In that case it is a good plan to put away all books for a couple of days to give the brain a complete rest.

“If often pays to take a rest from books; the brain comes back to them fresher. Moreover, the examination itself is a great mental strain, and the child ought to bring a strong fresh brain to the test, not a brain fatigued with too much study.”

- This is part of a series looking at the archives of The Irish Times concerning health.

1) Sleeping secrets: undress in the dark
2) Cooking for invalids: wine and champagne
3) Eat fat, no milk: 19 rules of long living
4) Bloody cures for women's periods
5) Electrical cures to revive sluggish functions
6) Your 'flatulence' explain your 'noises'
7) Curing psoriasis with nude sunbathing
8) Weight-loss: Obesity soap and fat massage
9) Institution Dubliners hoped they'd never enter
10) Cocaine Tooth Powder
11) 'Sun-ray' therapy
12) Men's hair products
13) A history of Irish lunacy
14) Prescribing clothes for women
15) Dublin in 1886
16) Poultices
17) Parsing 'painless dentistry'
18) Naughty children
19) Exam pressure