Perhaps one of the lesser-known Irish heroines is Dr Dorothy Stopford Price. Born in Ireland in 1890, Dorothy became of pioneer of the BCG vaccine and the tuberculin test in Ireland. Although this blog post series is entitled ‘Irish Women and Death’, this is about an Irish woman who prevented death and dying amongst the Irish people. She was credited by her peers with playing a huge part in helping bring an end to the tuberculosis epidemic in Ireland. Often referred to as ‘Ireland’s rebel doctor’, this is the story of Dr Dorothy Stopford Price and her battle against death in Ireland.
Dorothy went to study medicine in Trinity College Dublin in 1916, a very tumultuous year in Ireland in which the Easter Rising took place. The execution of the rebels caused her to swing her sympathies towards the nationalists, even though she was very friendly with a key figure in the British administration. After the Rising, Dorothy joined Cumann na mBan (League of Women/ Irish Women’s Council), a nationalist group for Irish women as she began to question to British regime in Ireland. She even trained some Cumann na mBan members in first aid at the West Cork IRA stronghold – risking her career in the process. She treated the wounded during the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War, working as a medical officer for the RIC barracks.
Whilst in her third year of medical school, the Spanish Flu epidemic hit Ireland after the First World War. Dorothy was exposed to huge amounts of death and dying, tending to the inflicted living as well as conducting post-mortems on the dead. The rate of death and infection no doubt had a huge impact on Dorothy’s later championing of vaccination. As part of her MD thesis, she investigated the diagnosis of tuberculosis in early childhood.
After witnessing a huge amount of child mortality in the 1920’s in Dublin whilst working as physician in a children’s hospital, it was in 1931 that came was a defining moment in Dorothy’s career. In Vienna, she saw Dr Franz Hamburger use tuberculin to diagnose tuberculosis by observing a skin reaction. Dorothy brought a tube of tuberculin back to Ireland, and by 1934, she had managed to carry out over 500 tests. Her findings concluded that vaccination needed to be implemented in Ireland (as many had not been exposed to tb so immunity could not develop), and in Sweden in 1936 Dorothy saw the use of the BCG vaccine. She was the first person to use the vaccine in Ireland in 1937, around the same time of the Ring Disaster – this brought the effectiveness of vaccination into question as a group of children who had been vaccinated against diphtheria had developed tuberculosis.
Dorothy attempted to set up an Antituberculosis League in Ireland in the 1940’s, but unfortunately the Archbishop of Dublin at the time protested against the number of protestants who were present in the league. The league was never established, but Dorothy still campaigned for vaccination against tuberculosis in Ireland and across Europe. In 1949, the Irish health minister asked Dorothy to lead a new committee to implement vaccination in Ireland. Dorothy was also nominated for a WHO prize for her contribution to social medicine. She suffered a stroke in 1950 and died in 1954 from a second stroke. Many attributed her stroke and death to stress and overworking. Dr Dorothy Stopford Price is one of the unknown heroines of the Irish healthcare system who worked herself to death in an attempt to prevent death on a mass scale in Ireland.