Pioneer of family planning


Dr Michael Solomons:Dr Michael Solomons, who has died aged 88, was a distinguished gynaecologist, a pioneer of family planning in Ireland and a veteran of the bitter and divisive 1983 constitutional amendment campaign.

Asked what he thought inspired the amendment, he said: "With the ability to control their fertility, women came out of the house and many men didn't like losing their authority."

His interest in family planning stemmed from his experiences as a medical student and young doctor in Dublin almost 70 years ago. This was when he first encountered the "grand multiparas", a term coined in Dublin for women who had seven or more pregnancies. Working as assistant Master of the Rotunda Hospital, he saw a 26-year-old woman on her sixth pregnancy go blind, only to return pregnant again the following year. In three years in the late 1940s, 23 women and 800 babies died in the hospital.

Continual child-bearing often had appalling consequences for women's health. But the laws of church and State prevented many women taking any effective steps to prevent pregnancy. "For them," wrote Dr Solomons, "pregnancy was to be a death sentence". As no mechanical method of preventing conception was available, he recalled, people improvised. A colleague attended the birth of a baby with the top of a Guinness bottle on his head. The mother had hoped it would act as a contraceptive.

This state of affairs would have continued if the wishes of fundamentalist Catholics had been fully respected, he asserted. But there were some who were prepared to swim against the tide on the contraceptive issue.

When as assistant gynaecologist at Mercer's Hospital, Dr Solomons began advising public patients on contraception with the support of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), it was to his knowledge the first time Irish public patients had access to contraceptive advice.

In 1968 he was present at a meeting called by GPs James Loughran and Joan Wilson which led to the establishment of Ireland's first family planning clinic, the beginnings of the Irish Family Planning Association. Other participants included Yvonne Pim, who with Joan Wilson had been giving sex education talks to Protestant secondary school pupils - they became known as the "sex ladies".

Also present were Robert Towers, editor of the Irish Medical Times, and pathologist Dermot Hourihane, who were Catholics, as was Máire Mullarney, the mother of 11 who experienced a conversion to family planning while visiting a clinic in Portugal.

Advised by senior counsel Noel Peart, they set up the Fertility Guidance Company Ltd, with the help of a grant from the IPPF; the company could not advertise nor could it sell contraceptives.

Improvisation was the order of the day. There were discreetly packaged mail-orders and "contraceptive couriers", friends and relations of the clinic staff who smuggled condoms, spermicides and diaphragms into the country - Dr Solomons's mother and mother-in-law, women in their late 70s, played their part. The clinic was never without supplies for long and, in an emergency, toothpaste was used as a spermicide.

Born in Dublin in 1919, Michael Joseph Maurice Solomons was the second child of Bethel A H Solomons and his wife Gertrude. He was from one of the oldest continuous lines of Jews in Ireland, who came over from England in 1824. His grandfather Maurice, an optician, is mentioned in Ulysses, his father in Finnegans Wake.

Bethel Solomons was Master of the Rotunda, an international rugby player and supporter of the 1916 Rising. Handsome and theatrical, he wore a Stetson hat and a velvet tie. Michael's aunt Estella Solomons was a painter, and with her husband Seumas [ sic] O'Sullivan founded the Dublin Magazine.

Educated at Trinity College Dublin, he did his medical training at the Rotunda Hospital. On qualifying, he worked for a year at the Royal City of Dublin Hospital, Baggot Street, and later spent three months at the National Children's Hospital before returning to the Rotunda to take a postgraduate course.

Having completed the course, he was appointed clinical clerk, supervising deliveries in the hospital's district which covered most of Dublin's northside.

In 1944 he secured a year's appointment at Chelsea Hospital for Women in London in order to study gynaecology. He then joined the RAF as a medical officer and, demobbed in 1947, became gynaecological registrar at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge.

Having returned to Dublin in 1948, 10 years later he contributed a chapter to Before the Baby and After, a comprehensive guide to childbirth. However, because a section of the book dealt with family planning and such printed material was banned in Ireland, it was not offered for sale to the Irish public.

He subsequently decided to write a sex education book for Irish readers and, in 1963, Allen Figgis published Life Cycles. Containing no reference to contraception, it was thorough in all other respects. It was well received and went into paperback. The sale of contraceptives was finally legalised in 1980 although the legislation was restrictive. Subsequent amendments to the law made contraceptives more easily available.

By 1992, from a position where there were no family planning clinics in the Republic until February 1969, there were two in Limerick, one each in Cork, Tralee, Navan, Galway and Wexford, and seven in the Dublin area.

In the meantime, abortion had become a major political issue. Dr Solomons was deeply unhappy about the 1983 anti-abortion amendment and very worried by the wording, which he saw as a possible means of outlawing contraception. He worried about the lives of women in life-threatening situations and feared that vigilantism could become rampant in Irish hospitals. In addition, he believed that the amendment was sectarian and consequently threw his weight behind the anti-amendment campaign in a bruising encounter with anti-abortion forces.

He spent most of his career as gynaecologist to Baggot Street and Mercers hospitals and as consultant obstetrician at the Rotunda, retiring in 1988. In 2000 he gave evidence to the all-party committee on the Constitution when it held public hearings on abortion. He was presented with the Fabulous Founders award by President Mary McAleese at the Ireland Involved Awards in 2001. The award was for the long-term effect which the IFPA had on Irish society.

An IFPA colleague remembers him as "a quiet revolutionary, a charming man with a twinkle in his eye . . . [ who] risked much - personally and professionally - to speak up for the voiceless". He married in 1952 Joan Maitland, who predeceased him; their two sons and two daughters survive him.

Michael Solomons: born May 3rd, 1919; died November 5th, 2007