Rebel doctor: how one woman's vision of eradicating TB was thwarted

Dorothy Stepford Price played a crucial role in the battle to combat TB here, but her work is overshadowed by the approach taken by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid

Wed, May 7, 2014, 12:19

Dorothy Stopford bookTuberculosis was a diagnosis peculiarly dreaded in Ireland for much of the 20th century. There was a stigma attached to sufferers: it seemed to run in families, and survivors and their relatives were correspondingly tainted. So, no one wanted tuberculosis recorded on a relation’s death certificate. Association with the disease was not good for employment or marriage prospects.

For those unlucky enough to contract tuberculosis prior to curative drugs, the prospect was of a long illness which might entail months or years in a sanatorium. There was drama associated with the symptoms. In adults, the bacteria usually targeted the lungs and bright red blood might be coughed up. Film and literary images of white handkerchiefs spotted or drenched in blood abound. In children, this form of the disease was less common. Instead, bones and joints, the abdomen or the membrane around the brain might be infected. Mortality figures were high but, as the century progressed, tuberculosis seemed to be going into slow decline. Nonetheless, for the first half of the 20th century, it remained, arguably, Ireland’s greatest public health problem.

During the second World War, or the Emergency as it was known in Ireland, there was a spike in the death rate from tuberculosis. In 1942, more than 4,000 people died from the disease in Ireland (a comparable figure to 1926). That year, a group of doctors got together in an attempt to raise national consciousness about tackling tuberculosis. They wanted the country to adopt new methods of diagnosis and prevention as well as provide more sanatorium beds and improved aftercare. They also hoped to tackle the stigma. It was an all-Ireland group with members in Northern Ireland as well as the Free State.

This group was founded by Dr Dorothy Stopford Price, a Protestant paediatrician and tuberculosis expert who had studied medicine in Trinity College Dublin, and who worked in St Ultan’s Infants Hospital in Dublin. Another early member of the group was Dr John Duffy, a Catholic. Following the custom of many Catholics at the time, he wrote to Dublin’s Archbishop John Charles McQuaid informing him of the group’s intention to found a national anti-tuberculosis league and assuring him that there was nothing in it contrary to Catholic teaching. The archbishop had recently founded the Catholic Social Service Conference to co-ordinate the welfare work being done by various groups so he was well aware of the medical, social and economic problems caused by tuberculosis affecting a breadwinner, a mother or a child. Dr McQuaid wrote to John Duffy that the conference would support the efforts of the new group.

As the group grew in number, and began to include other professionals such as veterinarians (bovine tuberculosis was a major problem), Dr Duffy continued to reassure the archbishop that the Catholic interest was being looked after. He told him that he had succeeded in having the county branches of the league placed under the guidance of the County Medical Officers of Health who were almost all Catholics and many of them were “leading Catholic activists”.

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