Dorothy Stopford Price’s life spanned World War 1 and the ensuing Spanish influenza pandemic, the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence and civil war, as well as World War 2. Her personal and professional lives were touched by all of these events.
She was born into an Anglo-Irish ascendancy family and spent Easter 1916 as the guest of Sir Matthew Nathan in the Undersecretary’s Lodge in the Phoenix Park. A couple of years later, she was a committed nationalist, a member of Cumann na mBan, a campaigner for a Sinn Fein candidate in Wicklow, and, subsequently, doctor to a brigade of the West Cork IRA during the War of Independence.
She remained a committed Republican for the rest of her life but she turned her attention from politics to medicine in the early 1920s.
Dorothy Price became a paediatrician with a particular expertise in tuberculosis. She championed the use of the tuberculin test for more accurate diagnosis and the use of the BCG vaccine for prevention of tuberculosis. She was the first person to use the vaccine in Ireland.
Anne MacLellan, author of a new biography on Dorothy Stopford Price, talked about the life and work of this extraordinary woman.
Early life and her family
Dorothy was born in 1890. Her father was Jemmett Stopford, an accountant who came from a long line of Church of Ireland clerics. His father – Dorothy’s grandfather – was Archdeacon of Meath, his grandfather had been Bishop of Meath. Her mother was Constance Kennedy whose father, Evory Kennedy, was master of the Rotunda from 1833-1840. Dorothy had two sisters Alice and Edie and a brother Robert.
When Queen Victoria died in 1901, the three sisters, aged 11, 12 and 13 were put into black mourning coasts and skirts on the day of her funeral. The Blinds were drawn in their home.
The following year, tragedy struck when Jemmet died from typhoid. Constance took the family to London where she had two sisters and a brother-in-law. Jemmet’s sister Alice also lived there. Dorothy, Edie and Robert went to school in St Paul’s.
Dorothy Stopford, graduating as a Bachelor of Medicine, Trinity College Dublin. 1921
Life at Trinity College Dublin
The college first admitted women in 1904 and they were still in the minority when she enrolled there in 1916. Male and female medical students attended the same lectures although the female medical students had their own dissecting rooms. However, women led largely separate lives while at college – they had to leave the grounds at 6 p.m., they were not welcome in many college societies, they were looked after by a female registrar and female academic staff were a rarity.
So, in third year, Dorothy decided it was time to launch an assault on the male bastion that was the Dublin University Biological Association or the BI. She drafted a petition to the BI asking for membership to be opened to female medical students from third-year onwards. The response from the corresponding sectary was uncompromising:
At an ordinary meeting of the Association held on the 12st inst your communication was read ‘inextremo’ to the members by the Record Secretary. In order to obtain an authoritative expression of the attitude of the Association the following resolution was moved:
‘That the election of women students to the membership and privileges of the DUBA is desirable’. After exhaustive discussion this motion was defeated by 120 votes to 2. The views expressed were in no way hostile towards the women students, but he consensus of opinion was that this election would inevitably lead to the disruption or atrophy of the association’.
In 1929, eight years after Dorothy left TCD, female medical students were allowed to attend meetings. Six years later again, some of Dorothy’s work was presented at the Bi but she was not allowed to present it herself.
The male Dr Hardiman who presented the case on her behalf prefaced his talk with the words that it was unfortunate that Dorothy’s sex debarred her from showing it herself but he told her he did not notice anyone saying ‘hear, hear’. He suggested that in another 50 years or so they might admit women members. It didn’t take quite that long. In May 1941, women were first admitted to full membership.
Stubbornness - a family legend
Dorothy was stubborn and once she made up her mind to champion a cause such as Irish politics, she did with gusto..
Dorothy’s stubbornness was a family legend. There is one incident that stands out in my mind. When the liberal MP Sir John Simon, a distant family relation, asked Edie and Dorothy to a dinner with a couple of hundred guests organised by the Birmingham liberal club. Dorothy was seated between the chairman of the local Liberal party and Sir John.
Just before the speeches, the ‘loyal toast’ to the King (George V) was proposed. Everyone, including Edie, got to their feet. Dorothy remained seated. According to Edie, Dorothy remained calm and rooted to her chair. Sir John seemed amused rather than horrified although Lady Simon who had stayed at home was rather shocked. The next day the Birmingham Liberal Club chairman and his wife came to family lunch with the Simons. The chairman was ‘absolutely entranced’ with Dorothy’s courage and would talk to no-one but her. Dorothy’s conquest of Sir John was complete when she proceeded to beat him at billiards. He afterwards told Edie that Dorothy strode around the billiard table, a cigarette hanging out of one corner of her mouth and curses streaming out of the other.
Cumann na mBan
Cumann na mBan sent Dorothy to West Cork, while she was still a medical student.
Dorothy first went to Kilbrittain while she was a final-year medical student. She was asked to go there by Cumann na mBan to give first-aid lectures to the IRA lads and the Cumann na mBan women.
She concentrated on the essentials of wartime medicine such as stopping a haemorrhage. One of the lads, John Murphy, whose brain, in Dorothy’s words, had ‘all gone to brawn’ ripped off his coat displaying gigantic biceps and challenged Dorothy to stop the blood flow. She was watched in breathless silence as she applied a tourniquet to the brachial artery and twisted a pencil to tighten it. Dorothy recalled: ‘Yes, the pulse stopped and I was accepted as worthy to doctor the West Cork IRA’. Despite this heroic demonstration, Dorothy realised the real needs of the mean centred on personal hygiene rather than medical measures. Although later, one of her pupils Jackie O’Neill did apply a tourniquet to the wrist of a man and then drove him two hours to get medical help. The man lived and might not have done so.
When she went back to Dublin she told Jennie Wyse Power in the Cumann na mBan headquarters that the West Cork column did not need dressings or first aid. Rather, they required sulphur powder, instructions on bathing and the treatment of scabies which plagued them as they darted around the countryside without the luxury of proper baths.
Dispensary Doctor, Kilbrittain
In May 1921, Dorothy was fully qualified as a medical doctor but jobs were in short supply. She knew, from her trip there, that the post of dispensary doctor in Kilbrittain was vacant. The previous incumbent was supposed to have run away in his slippers during a raid by auxiliaries who took pot shots at him as he ran. Anyone was welcome to take his place, according to Dorothy, even a gurral. Although this was a real job, the British administration were suspicious of Dorothy’s appointment to a job that was right in the heart of IRA country.
They refused her a permit for a bicycle so the IRA supplied her with a small grey pony and a saddle. The letter which accompanied the gift was signed by the Adjutant of the first battalion of the 3rd Cork Brigade and informed ‘Miss Dr Stopford that the Brigade and Battalion staff wished her to have the animal and its belongings for a present, not including the saddle’. When she got a car, she was to return the saddle. So, Dorothy began her career clanking along on the back of Maria, with saddlebags full of bottles and instruments.
She found it challenging being a dispensary doctor with no-one to confer with. So, when she gave a powder to a man and heard he died the next day, she was worried. Although she knew he couldn’t have died from the powder, she was relieved when she met the relatives and they said he had not taken it. Later, when she had to admit a boy to hospital, she worried that her written diagnosis might not be correct.
Dorothy crossed swords with John Charles McQuaid - and lost.
In 1939, the Swedish professor and tuberculosis expert Arvid Wallgren suggested to Dorothy that she might set up a national anti-tuberculosis league to raise consciousness about the topic. He had suggested that she make this an inclusive organisation: mixing up Catholics and Protestants, laymen and doctors as well business men, republicans and those of other political persuasions. She was ill and then busy so didn’t get around to it until 1942. That year, more than 4,000 people died in Ireland from tuberculosis – it was arguably Ireland’s greatest public health problem in the first half of the 20th century.
Dorothy first called together a few doctors including a Catholic Dr John Duffy. He informed Archbishop McQuaid about the group’s plans and assured him that there was nothing in it contrary to Catholic thinking. His Grace initially seemed inclined to approve. However, the group grew and was chaired by Prof Robert Rowlette, another Protestant who also a professor at TCD (of which McQuaid was suspicious) while Dorothy and John Duffy were honorary secretaries.
After a year’s planning the group called a public meeting in the Hibernian Hotel, Dublin. They asked McQuaid to attend. Unknown to them, he had other plans. While they were organising a league that would span North and South and cross political and religious divides, he was making sure that any anti-tuberculosis campaign would be in Catholic hands.
On the night of the meeting, his emissary Monsignor Daniel Molony stood up and read out a letter stating the Archbishop’s opinion that the anti-tuberculosis campaign should be undertaken by the Red Cross, which was effectively under Catholic control. There was some dissent but in the end no-one there seemed to think the Archbishop could be contradicted. Indeed, he gone out of his way to ensure that he would not be contradicted and had sought the support of the Minister for Local Govt and Public Health, Sean MacEntee, as well as the support of Frank Aiken, and through him, the Red Cross. Later, he even put his case to the Taoiseach Eamon de Valera.
Letter appointing Price as Children's Specialist of the Royal City of Dublin Hospital. 23 November 1932
Dorothy’s approach to tuberculosis differed from that of the Irish medical profession.
Dorothy was open to continental as well as British ideas. For instance, in 1931 she went to Vienna and saw Prof Franz Hamburger using tuberculin to test for tuberculosis in children. This test was seen as faddy when she was a medical student in TCD. She bought some of his ointment and subsequently tried it out on twin boys in St Ultans. She attended a postgraduate course in Scheidegg in Bavaria and learned German to read German-language literature on tuberculosis.
‘It is extra-ordinary that tuberculosis in children should have been a closed book in Ireland for 20 years after methods of diagnosis were well established on the continent, and at least ten years after methods of treatment had been evolved. One can only ascribe it to the fact that doctors in Ireland did not read or visit German-speaking centres and took everything via England.’
She came to believe more and more in the value of tuberculin testing and began to use it on all and sundry. There was a dramatic indication of its value and under-use in Ireland when she used it on 53 patients in Peamount Sanitorium. Fourteen of them tested negative meaning that they did not have tuberculosis. Even worse, they were now in an environment where they were surrounded by the disease which was contagious. These children were sent home with letters explaining to their county medical officers of health that they did not have tb.
She was also a proponent of BCG vaccine which was controversial – its value was not recognised in Ireland or Great Britain. In 1936, on holiday in Scandinavia, she met with some of the leading BCG advocates in Sweden and Denmark and when she went home she promptly applied for a licence to import the vaccine. In 1937, she began to use the vaccine in a small way – vaccinating a handful of children.
The vaccine became unavailable during World War 2 but she was very vocal in her support of it, insisting that when the war ended Ireland should start a mass BCG campaign.
The BCG campaign
When the war ended, Dorothy once again imported vaccine from Sweden and began to vaccinate on a larger scale. In Dublin Corporation, another female doctor, Mairead Dunlevy, began to vaccinate also, this time using a Danish version of BCG. There were various fights with respect to the value of BCG, the necessity for a mass campaign and who should control and carry out the campaign. Eventually, on Noel Browne’s instructions, a national BCG committee was set up in 1949 and chaired by Dorothy Price. Sadly, she suffered a stroke in 1950 and although she remained highly influential with respect to the mass BCG campaign in Ireland for the next four years, she had to resign her work as a doctor as well as give up her committee work.
Was BCG instrumental in ending the tuberculosis epidemic or was it antibiotics?
Very difficult to disentangle the various interventions which all came around the same time – 1950s – antibiotics, mass BCG, better diagnosis (mass x-ray; tuberculin etc), improved socio-economic circumstances with better diet and housing, more hospital beds…
Letter from Noël Browne to Dorothy Price, on his appointment as Minister for Health
How did Dorothy get on with the notoriously difficult Noel Browne?
Although they occasionally clashed, strangely robust relationship – she was frankly delighted when he was elected as an independent following the Mother and Child controversy.