Clodagh Finn: Focus on medical pioneers puts a harsh spotlight on our health failures

Clodagh Finn: Focus on medical pioneers puts a harsh spotlight on our health failures

 Lord Mayor of Dublin, Alison Gilliland with Liam Roche, left, a relative of Dr Kathleen Lynn; and Paudge Behan, a relative of Madeleine ffrench-Mullen at the inveiling of a commemorative plaque to Dr Kathleen Lynn & Madeline ffrench-Mullen on the Charlemont Street building in Dublin where St Ultan’s Infant Hospital was founded in April 1919. Picture: Damien Eagers 

Brian Graham, 80, thinks he is probably one of the few remaining people who can say that he was treated by Dr Kathleen Lynn, the pioneering doctor who was honoured with her partner (in life and work) Madeleine ffrench-Mullen by Dublin City Council on Sunday.

Brian Graham,80, was six months old when he was treated by Dr Kathleen Lynn.
Brian Graham,80, was six months old when he was treated by Dr Kathleen Lynn.

He was a six-month-old baby living in Dorset St when he fell ill in 1942. His mother’s friends told her to bring him across the city to St Ultan’s to see Dr Lynn. The hospital was free and it gave health care to anybody who needed it, rather than those who could pay for it. Brian Graham and his daughter, Ellie Wishart, recall the story as a plaque to remember the hospital’s founders was unveiled by Dublin’s Lord Mayor Alison Gilliland on the site of the former hospital on Sunday.

In 1919, Dr Lynn and ffrench-Mullen acquired a run-down building on 37 Charlemont Street and set up a hospital with just two cots and £70. They had seen that children were dying of curable diseases and wanted to do something about Dublin’s high infant mortality — among the highest in Europe — as well as tackle the scourge of tuberculosis.


Even now, their success in opening the first dedicated paediatric hospital in Ireland would be considered groundbreaking. All the staff were women. They focused on providing free care to women and children who, in most cases, would not have had access to medical care elsewhere.

They were also encouraged to be innovators. And they were given the freedom to run the hospital, which was independent and multidenominational, as they saw fit. Dr Dorothy Stopford Price, for instance, went to the trouble of learning German so that she could research how countries, such as Germany, Austria, and Sweden, were tackling TB. She was the first in Ireland to introduce the Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine to fight tuberculosis in 1937, a decade before it was widely used in the rest of the country.

Dr. Kathleen Lynn.
Dr. Kathleen Lynn.

The hospital ran baby clubs, had Montessori wards — and two goats, Bluebell and Lady Carson, which were milked by the matron to address the ongoing problem of contaminated milk. Dr Lynn considered the hospital “a university for mothers” and advocated breastfeeding which, she said, was a baby’s birth right.

In turn, Madeleine ffrench-Mullen, who was secretary of the hospital until her death in 1944, wanted to “spread knowledge” to prevent disease and ill health and, during many fundraising trips to the US, she brought back new ideas to St Ultan’s.

Another doctor, Dr Ella Webb, went on to pioneer the use of UV light in the treatment of rickets and set up the Children’s Sunshine Home in the suburbs of Dublin so children could escape from the horrendous conditions of the city tenements to recover in the fresh air.

Recognising children's rights

These were women who recognised children’s rights long before the phrase came into being. It’s not surprising, then, that there has been an ongoing campaign to honour Dr Lynn and her colleagues by naming the new National Children’s Hospital after Kathleen Lynn.

Sunday’s memorial event, which inscribed the names of these early pioneers into the fabric of the city, has reinvigorated a campaign that already has widespread support among historians, the medical profession and the general public.

As historian Dr Margaret Ward said on Sunday: “One way in which the modern Irish State could repay the enormous debt it owes to these two remarkable women is to proudly proclaim the name of the new children’s hospital as the Kathleen Lynn hospital.”

The commemorative plaque to Dr Kathleen Lynn & Madeleine ffrench-Mullen.
The commemorative plaque to Dr Kathleen Lynn & Madeleine ffrench-Mullen.

Dr Lynn and her partner, she continued, were revolutionaries in so many ways, “as militant republicans, as feminists, as women who made their lives together, as women who defied the Catholic Church and ran St Ultan’s as a hospital staffed only with women, both Catholic and Protestant, providing the health care that women and their children needed, and based upon what women and children wanted”.

That was an ethos, forgotten over many decades, that returned during the challenging days of the Covid-19 pandemic when we saw what it might be like if people were treated according to their needs, rather than their pockets.

Unfortunately, that applied only to the treatment of the virus itself. Since then, the numbers on waiting lists for other conditions have surged and many have been waiting for more than a year for treatment. On any day, you’ll find articles detailing the failings of our health service and the difficulties people face in accessing it.

To quote one of the most recent examples: Hiqa (the Health Information and Quality Authority) highlighted a series of failures at University Hospital Limerick last week, including long waits and overcrowding. One patient, this paper reported, waited 116 hours for a hospital bed, another for 85 hours, and a third for over 71 hours.

We can hope when the new National Children’s Hospital finally opens, the state-of-the-art facility — as it is often described — will provide the kind of care to children that the staff of St Ultan’s could only dream of

 If the hospital is named after Dr Lynn, and I hope it is, she might feel honoured to be commemorated, although you can’t help thinking that she would be horrified by the delays and the spiralling costs.

In 2017, the projected cost of the new hospital was some €980m. Now, it could rise to over €2bn and be further delayed. We have been told that the invasion of Ukraine, Brexit, the pandemic, and disruption to the global supply chain could further push up costs and cause more delays.

Those factors are outside the control of the Government but still, I can’t help thinking that the hospital would have been completed on time and within budget if Dr Lynn had been in charge from day one.

She and Madeleine ffrench-Mullen got inspiration for the name of their singular facility when, during a tour of the Boyne Valley, they came across a well at Ardbraccan in Meath dedicated to St Ultan, a saint and bishop who cared for children orphaned during the Yellow Plague of the 7th century.

I hope the powers-that-be will do more than just look to Kathleen Lynn and her colleagues when it comes to naming the new children’s hospital, but also adopt something of their exceptional ethos. It’s just a pity that they are not still here to run it.

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