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COVID-19 Crisis Blog: A Heroine of Irish Public Health Dorothy Stopford Price and the BCG vaccination

16 September 2020 - As we navigate a national and global public health crisis with the spread of Covid-19 Coronavirus, we hear from our research and policy fellows, and members of our research community in a weekly blog which reflects on these new societal challenges. This week, Daryl Hendley Rooney, early career researcher at the School of Histories and Humanities, Trinity College Dublin, remembers a forgotten trailblazer in Irish public health.

Daryl Hendley Rooney, PhD researcher, School of Histories and Humanities, TCD.

Trinity College, which is considered to be the centre of immunology research in Ireland, has produced a long and illustrious list of standout immunologists and virologists. Some are well known, while others are less so. Trinity’s School of Medicine was the direct route through which many of these skilled practitioners passed. In 1904, the Board of College agreed to the admission of women to study medicine. Just over ten years later, amidst the cohort of incoming medical students was 25-year-old Dorothy Stopford Price (b. 09 September 1890–d. 30 January 1954), a middle-class Protestant and so much more besides.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in medicine in 1921, Stopford Price went on to work in a number of roles focusing on public health. However, her greatest professional achievement was her pioneering work in the use of the Bacillus Calmette–Guérin (BCG) vaccine to treat the lung disease tuberculosis (TB) also known as consumption due to its victims being ‘consumed’ by weight loss and breathlessness. TB was a leading cause of deaths in Irish children in the 1930s and in the 1950s about 7,000 cases per annum were recorded. She intensely studied the BCG vaccination on the continent and brought back her newly acquired knowledge to Ireland, pioneering the vaccine’s usage in Saint Ultan's Children's Hospital – the first hospital in Ireland or Britain to administer the BCG.

Irish history has never been black and white; green and orange. And neither were the people enmeshed in the contexts of the past. Dorothy Stopford Price was a complex character – a middle-class Protestant, an accomplished medical practitioner and an Irish nationalist. Her political views were heavily influenced by her aunt Alice Stopford-Green, an historian of Ireland and Britain, and an ardent critic of British colonial policy in Africa. After graduating, Stopford Price’s first post was at the dispensary in Kilbrittain, Co. Cork, where she would assist the local IRA brigade as their medical officer. She also taught first-aid to members of the women’s republican society, Cumann na mBan. No doubt, Stopford Price realised the often-forgotten relationship between medicine and politics. Indeed, the politicisation of medicine is ever-present, from recent debates about the legalisation of marijuana in the Republic of Ireland to states buying up vaccination stock before it even leaves the test tube. There is no doubting that access to coronavirus vaccinations will be one of the most testing areas for diplomacy and industry over the coming years.

These issues aside, it is worth noting that Stopford Price’s influence on public health did not end with her long journey examining the pathology of TB, as the BCG vaccine, which was rolled out across many countries during the latter quarter of the twentieth century, has recently come to the fore as a possible means of limiting the spread and severity of coronavirus. Indeed, over a decade ago it was noticed that the BCG vaccine protects against certain strains of the flu virus. However, with regard to its potential use as a barrier against COVID-19, the World Health Organisation has remained firm in its stance that no evidence supports this. Yet there are many researchers continuing to explore the possible benefits of BCG in fighting the virus. Researchers at the University of Michigan have studied whether BCG has a role to play, concluding that their analysis ‘suggests that mandated BCG vaccination can be effective in the fight against COVID-19.'

In her biography of Stopford Price, Dorothy Stopford Price: Rebel Doctor, Anne MacLellan paints a fascinating picture of a rebellious doctor who challenged the patriarchal pillars upon which the study and practice of medicine had for too long been upheld. This biography, which utilises Stopford Price’s extant letters, diaries, and research papers housed in Trinity College Library (some of which have been digitised and are easily accessible online), relays an incredibly personal insight into her experiences of such tumultuous events as the Easter Rising and the spread of the Spanish Flu.

It is often the case that the names of the great inventors and technologists who have made human beings’ existence all the easier and indeed lengthier have been too easily forgotten.

Once a vaccination becomes ubiquitous, our indebtedness to its creator wanes over time as it becomes so familiar in everyday life that one fails to realise that it did not always exist. One can guess that in the advent of a vaccine for COVID-19, it will not take long for the name(s) of its maker to be forgotten. What is more, the sheer number of laboratories, of both private and public domains, means that we rarely read or hear the names of the individuals and/or teams involved in creating a vaccination. However, when one considers the suffering – physical, mental and/or emotional – that often accompanies an illness, the importance of innovative medicines, treatments and protocols that emerge to treat patients or indeed make their plight that bit more bearable is truly immeasurable. It is important, therefore, that we spare a thought for the researchers and technicians, past and present, who painstakingly found – and continue to find – the cures to our ills.

While we are often reminded to acknowledge our frontline workers, let us not forget the toil of those behind the scenes who are attempting to alleviate the pressure felt by patients and, subsequently, the frontline workers themselves. As her obituary published in The Lancet made plain, Dorothy Stopford Price ‘combined charm with vision, and zeal with an insistence that clinical work must be based on firm scientific foundations’ (March 13, 1954, p. 578–9). As we take a moment to appreciate the arduous journey of one selfless Irish medical practitioner, let us spare a moment in thanks to her contemporaries, as well as those who have been passed the torch.

 

Daryl Hendley Rooney is a PhD candidate in the Department of History, Trinity College, where he works on writers' views of Ireland and her people in early Plantagenet England under the supervision of Prof. Seán Duffy. Aside from his research in the high medieval period, Daryl is broadly interested in the Anglo-Irish relationship and its history. He is also a research assistant in the Trinity Long Room Hub, where he researches the experiences of women as recorded in the 1641 Depositions.

 

 

*Images in main article:

  • Dorothy Stopford Price / Library of Trinity College Dublin
  • Rathfelder / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Related links: The 1916 Diary of Dorothy Stopford Price at Trinity College Dublin

Recent posts in the COVID-19 Crisis Blog:

Student Motivation and the Pandemic by Peter Gillis (8 September 2020)

The Happiness of Use-wear by Ellen Finn (14 July 2020)

Worship in a Time of Pandemic with Sahar Ahmed (7 July 2020)

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