Dr Dorothy Price: The rebel doctor written out of our history

Dr Dorothy Price helped eradicate TB here, but her role as a medic to a West Cork flying column has been overlooked, writes Sharon Ní Chonchúir

Dorothy Stopford

STORIES can be hidden within stories. This is what Anne MacLellan discovered while researching the work of Dr Dorothy Price. She was a member of the wealthy Protestant ascendancy that had such an influence on the emerging Irish state. She was born in 1890 and raised in what her sister Edie described as: “the true Irish Protestant social and cultural tradition — attending church regularly and consorting only with other little Protestants. There were worries we would pick up the Irish brogue so our governesses came from England and children’s maids were French-speaking Swiss girls. We learned English rather than Irish history and grew up as devoted little West Britons.”

It was a privileged life — a life that prompted Anne MacLellan to write a book about this much-overlooked historical figure.

“Originally, I was focussing on the impact of her medical work from 1930 to 1960, so it was quite technical,” explains MacLellan, who currently combines work as a senior medical scientist in Connolly Hospital with research into Irish medical history. “But I kept uncovering juicy facts that distracted me along the way. I decided to write a book about who she was and the times she lived in.”

Dorothy Stopford Price: Rebel Doctor features several different stories interwoven into one lifetime.

It describes sailing excursions in Dublin Bay, camping trips to the Wicklow Hills, evenings in the Abbey and social outings.

There is a political story too. Some of Dorothy’s relatives were passionate supporters of Home Rule. Her Aunt Alice assisted Roger Casement with organising gun-running into Ireland. Dorothy was even more revolutionary. She was staying at the Under Secretary’s Lodge in the Phoenix Park when the Easter Rising broke out. Her ringside seat at this decisive moment in Irish history radicalised her and she went on to offer her Dublin home as a safehouse for those on the run during the War of Independence. She also canvassed for Sinn Féin electoral candidates and worked as a doctor in the IRA hotbed of West Cork.

“It’s amazing how this Protestant urban sophisticate was able to go and work in a small village in Co Cork,” says MacLellan. “She appears to have had no problem getting on with all sorts of different people.”

Dorothy’s life also spanned the beginnings of modern medicine. “Medicine has changed drastically since then,” says MacLellan. “Pre-antibiotics, there was often not a lot you could do for people. Dorothy’s life in medicine coincides with the move into the modern medical world.”

She played an important part in ushering in this modern era in Ireland, particularly in relation to tuberculosis (TB). This disease was the third leading cause of death in Irish children for the first half of the 20th century.

On a trip to Austria in 1931, Dorothy discovered that a safe and convenient skin test for TB was being used all over Europe but not in Britain or Ireland. Returning home, she started to use the test and lobbied government to get others to do the same. Continuing her research, she then came to hear about the BCG vaccine being used to inoculate against TB. She was determined to try it out to see if it could be used in Ireland.

Her research was hampered by resistance from the Irish medical community and by the outbreak of war. However, she persevered and concluded that there was an urgent need for vaccination. She also tried to set up a national anti-tuberculosis league to raise awareness and funds for the fight against TB.

But her Protestant background counted against her. Archbishop Charles McQuaid objected to a league led by Protestant doctors and insisted the task be undertaken by the Irish Red Cross. Dorothy was involved but was closely monitored by the Church.

In spite of these obstacles, her hard work began to pay off by the mid-1940s. In 1948, a new Minister for Health was appointed who was sympathetic to her case. Dr Noel Browne provided funding for Ireland’s first BCG unit to be opened in St Ultan’s Hospital, where Dorothy was based, and he also appointed her as chair of the National Consultative Council on Tuberculosis. She was finally able to make her medical mark.

However, despite all her research and struggles to introduce testing and vaccinations, it is not Dorothy’s name that is associated with the eradication of TB in Ireland. The credit for this is given to Dr Noel Browne and Dr James Deeney, chief medical advisor from 1944 to 1950.

“I don’t think she was deliberately overlooked,” says MacLellan. “The TB story became the Noel Browne story. He and James Deeney came to dominate the debate and she got written out of history.”

MacLellan hopes her book will restore Dorothy Price’s reputation. “She was so unusual in her life as a woman,” she says. “She had the privilege of education. She had a profession. She witnessed history. She dedicated herself to improving the health of the Irish people. Hers is a great story; I just hope people enjoy it.”


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