Played major role in the fight against TB


Dr Pearl Dunlevy, who died on June 3rd aged 92, helped to eliminate a major cause of mortality in 20th-century Ireland. While many are credited with addressing the scourge of tuberculosis, she was at the coalface of research and development. She was the lynchpin of Dublin's immunisation programme, and Dublin was the first local authority in Britain and Ireland to introduce BCG vaccine which prevented TB.

Pearl Dunlevy was born on August 13th, 1909, the fifth child of Margaret (née Doherty) and George Dunlevy, merchants and embroidery agents in Mountcharles, Co Donegal. She was educated at Loreto Convent, St Stephen's Green, Dublin, and the St Louis Convent, Carrickmacross. Both of these schools were strong advocates of higher education for women. Two of her brothers and her sister also became medical doctors.

Pearl Dunlevy's interest in TB developed after she graduated with a first-class honours medical degree from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in 1932. Like many of her generation she obtained experience outside Ireland, working as a TB physician in Cardiff.

In 1937, St Ultan's Hospital for Infants was the first hospital in Britain and Ireland to introduce the BCG vaccine due to the pioneering efforts of Dr Dorothy Stopford Price. In the same year, Pearl Dunlevy began working for Dublin Corporation as a medical officer at Crooksling Sanatorium.

As a member of the national BCG committee, which was based at St Ultan's Hospital, she organised the extensive introduction of BCG vaccinations in the city and county. Furthermore, she published extensively on preventative medicine and public health.

Her elder sister Nan was an important academic support and guide since she worked in psychiatry in Letterkenny and Portrane and taught anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons. Hence, Pearl Dunlevy managed to combine both an academic and practical approach to public health.

She used her unique position, not to mention her tact and patience, to promote vital public health measures. Initially, she established a special primary TB clinic for children. Treating them separately, the infant mortality from the disease plummeted. By 1962, only one TB death was recorded annually in Ireland, and that was in unvaccinated children.

Like Dr Stopford Price, she visited Denmark, Norway and Sweden to study best practices in relation to immunisation. She published her findings in order to facilitate the research of others. These publications were also important in overcoming medical prejudice.

Pearl Dunlevy pioneered the introduction of a BCG scheme at Dublin's Rotunda Hospital. With the closure of sanatoriums and the significant drop in mortality from TB she cautioned against complacency and argued that the non-compulsory BCG vaccination programme should continue.

Another source of concern was the threat of rubella. She researched its effects after the virus was discovered in 1962. She was particularly concerned about epidemics in Dublin and she studied the approach of other countries. A screening programme was introduced in 1972 when it was estimated that 14 per cent of Irish women of childbearing age were at risk of contracting rubella during pregnancy. Pearl Dunlevy's belief in the immunisation and vaccination schemes, and her careful monitoring of them, ensured a dramatic drop in mortality in various preventable diseases such as diphtheria and whooping cough.

Pearl Dunlevy's many achievements were recognised by the medical profession and she became the first female president of the Biological Society of the Royal College of Surgeons. She was also invited to work with the World Health Organisation in countering TB in Delhi.

Her strong nationalism was expressed in a practical manner as she sought to improve the nation's health. She was proud to be a descendant of the legendary physicians to the O'Donnell clan in Donegal. Indeed, she continued that proud tradition which survived into the late 19th century when Ambrose Dunlevy inoculated his neighbours in the Ardara district against smallpox.

Pearl Dunlevy never forgot her Donegal roots, and her love of nature found practical expression in her devotion to gardening. Her companion, Kathleen Hughes, nursed her in her final years.

Dr Bridget Margaret Mary (Pearl) Dunlevy: born 1909; died, June 2002