Tuesday, 30 March 2021

Through the Archives: Community Doctors of the Past

In this blog post, Simone Doyle, a student on UCD's MA in History of Welfare & Medicine in Society, explores the career of Dr Neil John Blayney (1874-1919) using archival material donated to the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland's Heritage Centre.

Doctors in Obscurity

Several notable figures tend to dominate our discussions of doctors in the past – Hippocrates, Joseph Lister, Louis Pasteur, John Snow. In Ireland, Francis Rynd (inventor of the hypodermic syringe), and fellow Wexford man, Arthur Leared (inventor of the binaural stethoscope), are arguably our most famous medical men. But what of the lives of the less prominent doctors who served their communities, counties, and country, upheld their Hippocratic oath and were respected members of the medical community? Thanks to material donated to the archives of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland (RCPI), as well as the work of academics and students studying the history of medicine, and avid amateur historians, many formerly forgotten members of the medical profession are now being rescued from obscurity and having their stories told. This article will discuss one such doctor, Neil John Blayney (1874-1919), and his career in Maryborough County Infirmary, Queen’s County (now County Laois), made possible due largely to the archival material donated to the RCPI by his grandson, Neil Brennan.

The County Infirmary

Postcard image of Queen's County Infirmary 
(early 20th Century)

Maryborough County Infirmary was established in 1808.[1] By 1836 it housed 868 patients, well above its original capacity of fifty-five. Maryborough was something of an institutional town as it comprised not only the Queen’s County Infirmary and dispensary but a district lunatic asylum (now St. Fintan’s Hospital) and a county gaol (now Portlaoise Prison) that contained eight prison wards (six for men, two for women), nine solitary cells and a prison infirmary.[2]

Neil John Blayney (often referred to as “N J” in newspaper entries for the period) assumed the position of Surgeon and Physician in 1900, after working as the resident surgeon in the Mater Hospital in Dublin and the Mater Infirmorum, Belfast between 1897 and 1899. His appointment was complicated by a local conflict surrounding the previous Physician, a Dr David Jacob’s retirement and his replacement by his son, Dr W.G. Jacob. This appointment was challenged by the Infirmary management, and, after a lengthy campaign, W.G. Jacob was dismissed by the Queen’s County Board in October 1899 and replaced by Blayney.[3] W.G. Jacob challenged this decision in the courts, with Blayney named as co-defendant in the proceedings that ran until 20 February 1900, after which he was confirmed as the surgeon and physician for the Infirmary. Blayney in 1904 described this situation as ‘a period of exceptional difficulty and excitement’.[4]

References from his colleagues prior to his appointment in Maryborough are glowing: ‘he was remarkable for diligence, good conduct and ability’; ‘a highly qualified and competent surgeon…deserving of any position of public trust’; ‘he will, I am confident, be found eminently suitable and give entire satisfaction’.[5] Blayney seems to have lived up to the reputation that preceded him. Father Connolly, a member of the Infirmary Board claimed that ‘nobody could be more attentive or successful than Dr Blayney…in his treatment of them’.[6] At least one of his clients (Major J. Duffield) can be seen to concur, writing to personally thank Dr Blayney and his staff for their swiftness in dealing with ‘the child of a widow … in my charge … who contracted scarlatina … thus preventing the spread of the infection’. As a show of gratitude, Major Duffield donated funds towards the running of the Infirmary.[7]

“Body-snatching”, Suicide and Strychnine

Blayney’s position carried with it a slew of responsibilities, some similar to the work of a modern GP, along with additional duties more conventional for the time. Of the latter, there was his involvement in the training of Voluntary Aid Detachment Nurses during the First World War, giving classes for groups associated with the Irish Volunteers, Cumann na mBan and the Irish Red Cross, and his work on promoting information around the fight against tuberculosis (see below).[8]

His more traditional responsibilities included being attendant to the last moments of many locals and people in surrounding areas, as documented in reports of coroners’ inquests. He assisted a workhouse doctor, Dr McCann in Mountmellick in attempting to save a farmer who had attempted suicide by ‘slicing his own throat’ according to news reports.[9] He gave testimony in the case of Matthew Costigan, a man who died of apparent alcohol-related injuries whose body had been returned to the family by police without the Coroner’s permission, an action which could have resulted in imprisonment for the person blamed for wrongful removal.[10]

Perhaps the most curious of these reports is that on the death of twenty-one-year-old Mary McEvoy. Mary, who had been in apparently good health, died with such suddenness that Dr Blayney at first suspected she may have been poisoned and suggested that the Coroner order a post mortem. At the inquest, however, Blayney changed his opinion, deciding that ‘the only poison could have been strychnine, and since then I have concluded that it could not have been strychnine’. Nevertheless, a post mortem was ordered, performed by Blayney and Dr W.G. Jacob, his one-time opponent. In the end, a brain haemorrhage was cited as the cause of Mary’s death.[11]

Operating Theatre

Given Dr Blayney’s surgical background, it is no surprise that he was among those who advocated for the addition of a proper operating theatre to the infirmary. Management Committee reports reflect just how long and arduous this process was. The first request for funds from the public appear in 1905; by 1907, the probable cost of £200 had yet to be raised, and the theatre remained unsatisfactory (Blayney reportedly said he would ‘be ashamed to show the place to another surgeon’); and the final payment for the work on the theatre was made in April 1911.[12]

Welcome Home Sanatorium

The late nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth century saw a marked rise in tuberculosis cases. This epidemic had a higher mortality rate than that from other diseases at the time and was attributed to one in every 8.5 deaths in Ireland.[13] The establishment of sanatoria in Germany in the mid-nineteenth century for the treatment of tuberculosis signalled the beginning of a movement of specialised sanatoria building worldwide in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which had migrated to Ireland by the 1890s.[14]

Opening Ceremony of Queen's County Sanatorium
(Dr Blayney situation on balcony on furthest right)
By the time the Queen’s County Sanatorium opened in April 1911, Dr Blayney had already been very involved in providing the public with advice and information. In 1909, during a lecture he delivered at Maryborough, he impressed upon the attendees the dangers of spitting, how decaying teeth could leave people vulnerable to tuberculosis, and advised them to support new legislation around the inspection of dairies.[15] It appears that immediately following the Sanatorium’s opening, Dr Blayney provided his services free of charge. However, by 1912, developments under the provisions of the Prevention of Tuberculosis (Ireland) Act required a full-time Superintendent to be appointed. At a meeting in June 1912, concerns were raised by the Infirmary Committee that it could not afford to pay a full-time doctor dedicated to the sanatorium at the suggested salary of between £300 and £500 per annum. The discussion also raised the question of whether or not Dr Blayney could be allowed to hold both his current role and that of Sanatorium Superintendent; Dr W.G. Jacob had been removed and replaced by Dr Blayney for holding multiple positions, and so it was felt that Dr Blayney would have to give up his private practice in order to be eligible to fill the role at the Sanatorium. The discussion concluded without any decision reportedly being reached.[16] As shown in material in the RCPI Collection, Blayney continued his education in tuberculosis treatment throughout July of that year, attending multiple postgraduate lectures on the subject, including one organised by the Women’s National Health Association.[17] Just four months later, in November 1912, Dr Blayney was officially appointed as the Superintendent of Queen’s County Sanatorium, running unopposed and voted in unanimously, making his recent postgraduate activities particularly timely.[18] Unfortunately, his stewardship was cut short when the Sanatorium was destroyed by a fire later that month and never rebuilt.

Career Conflicts – Local to National

Dr N.J. Blayney outside
Maryborough Infirmary
Dr Blayney’s professional outlook seems to have been defined by two things – practical diligence and strong opinions. As a result, he was involved in his share of professional conflicts.

In 1908, a dispute was reported between Dr Blayney and other members of the Management Committee over the appointment of nurses. After the resignation of the two former infirmary nurses some months prior, an advertisement was published to fill the vacant positions. Dr Blayney had, without notifying the Board, changed the advertisement’s wording so that it required nurses to have ‘the necessary certificates, as directed by the Local Government Board’. When pressed on why this was necessary when many nurses in private institutions were able to practice without these certificates, Dr Blayney was reported to have said that ‘for the status and dignity of the institution, no nurse should be under the standard laid down by the local government boards’, and that if possible, he would prefer an even higher standard. The Committee Chairman in particular pushed back against this and argued that they should proceed to elect new nurses based on the previous, unaltered advertisement. Despite Dr Blayney’s protest, the election of new nurses was postponed, and the advertisement re-printed with his qualification clause removed.[19]

A larger conflict emerged between Dr Blayney and some other doctors in the area – including Dr T. F. Higgins, the county Coroner, who was a rival applicant for the Medical Advisership position Dr Blayney eventually took up (under the Insurance Act of 1911) in July 1913.[20] On 30 July, Higgins and ten other area doctors co-signed a letter expressing their dissatisfaction with Blayney taking up the post: ‘We express the strongest disapproval of … Dr. Blayney … accepting Medical Advisership … and we call on said doctor to resign, and failing to do so, we decline to have any medical consultations with these officials until they have resigned.’[21] This caused some severe issues for Dr Blayney – the doctors refused to send patients to the Infirmary, or to supply assistance to him on operations, leading to their cancellation. One patient, according to members of the Management Committee, was kept in hospital ‘and fasting’ for a week without being sent for operation because Dr Blayney could not get any of the doctors to assist him. The gravity of the matter was summed up by one of the Committee Members: ‘they have a grievance in legislation, and they want the poor, infirm and suffering people of the county to suffer by that’.[22]

The biggest conflict of Dr Blayney’s career came in November 1903, when he resigned from the Queen’s County Branch of the Irish Medical Association. In a letter to Dr Dunne of the Queen’s County Medical Association, printed in the Leinster Express and elsewhere, Dr Blayney affected his resignation by harshly criticising the Association’s motives for demanding £200 per year for all dispensary medical men and four guineas a week for locums, claiming it showed an ‘evident tendency … by … the association to try and drag the dispensary system into the control of the Civil Service’. He further criticised the Association’s election policy for dispensary doctors, citing a case in Ballyroan in which of the two candidates who presented, only one was qualified for the position. He seemingly insinuated that this candidate was prevented by the Association from presenting himself and warned that if this were allowed to happen elsewhere ‘we would have medical men, appointed by the guardians more or less against their will, who might not be suitable to fill their position, nor might their election be approved of by the majority of the people’. Dr Blayney finished by saying:

It does not resound to the credit of … the association … when we find them trying to prevent the representatives of the people from exercising the authority vested in them.[23]

The version published in the Leinster Leader was accompanied by commentary that suggests Dr Blayney’s letter was ‘bound to exercise a profound influence on the course of the medical controversy’.[24] This certainly seems to have been the case, considering the level of backlash towards Dr Blayney from his colleagues.

In the 14 November issue of the Leinster Express, Dr Higgins criticised Blayney’s worries about dispensaries being put in control of the Civil Service by directly referencing his ascension to the position in Maryborough: ‘Under the civil service system, the best man should be appointed … according to merit. Is that objectionable to Dr Blayney? If so, it means that gratitude to those, who, under a different system, placed him in the County Infirmary, has prejudiced his mind.’[25]

Blayney’s act of protest was dealt a further blow by a letter to the Irish Times from Secretary of the Irish Medical Association, Dr Thomas Gick (reprinted in the Express). The letter stated that despite Dr Higgins’ claim that he had been crucial in formulating the policies of the Queen’s County Branch, Dr Blayney had never actually been a member of the Irish Medical Association, and therefore ‘could not resign that which was not in his possession’.[26]

This piece of information served to make for even more cutting responses. Dr L.F. Rowan laid into Dr Blayney with particular vitriol, criticising his ‘mental attitude’, calling his resignation from a position he did not hold a ‘rare psychological phenomenon’ and suggesting his letter contained ‘a profound degree of mental torpor or hibernation that almost disarms criticism’.[27] Dr Rowan even went so far as to mock Blayney’s actions in quitting over policy for dispensary doctors: ‘It is a pity he is not a poor dispensary doctor, because he can never have opportunity of showing the faith that is in him by resigning himself.’[28]

That Dr Blayney’s career and relationship with his colleagues, particularly Dr Higgins, continued to operate successfully after these clashes suggests that the assessment of Blayney by his peers, infirmary colleagues and patients as an upstanding and consummate professional was almost certainly an accurate one.

Simone Doyle

Simone Doyle is a student on UCD's MA in History of Welfare & Medicine in Society.


I would like to thank the following people:

Dr Catherine Cox for her support, kindness, and guidance throughout my studies. To Dr Elizabeth Mullins for inviting me to lecture sessions and talks relevant to my research. Mr Neil Brennan for his insightful talk about his grandfather Dr Blayney and for lending his permission to use his photographs in this blog. To Ms Harriet Wheelock of the RCPI for supplying me with the archival material used. To Dr Alice Mauger for editing, notes and advice on the piece. And finally, to my partner and my mother for their constant support over the course of my studies.

[1] Samuel Lewis, A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (London, 1837), Accessed at: https://www.libraryireland.com/topog/M/Maryborough-East-Maryborough-Queens.php

[2] Lewis, A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland.

[3] Neil J. Brennan, Opening Dusty Boxes: The Life of a County Surgeon in Edwardian Ireland (Carrigtohill, 2019), 27-8.

[4] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 1 October 1904.

[5] M.A. Boyd to N.J. Blayney, 11 November 1898 (RCPI Blayney Collection, Item 63); Charles Coppinger to N. J. Blayney, 20 November 1898 (RCPI Blayney Collection, Item 64); Daniel McDonnell to N.J. Blayney, 30 November 1899 (RCPI Blayney Collection, Item 73).

[6] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 1 October 1904.

[7] Leinster Express, 30 March 1912.

[8] Leinster Express, 2 June 1917; Brennan, Opening Dusty Boxes, 52.

[9] Westmeath Independent, 25 Nov 1911.

[10] Leinster Express, 27 April 1912.

[11] Leinster Express, 22 March 1902.

[12] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 28 October 1905; Leinster Express, 1 December 1907; Nationalist and Leinster Times, 1 April 1911.

[13] Alan Francis Carthy, The Treatment of Tuberculosis in Ireland from the 1890s to the 1970s: A Case Study of Medical Care in Leinster (PhD Thesis, National University of Ireland Maynooth, 2015), 1.

[14] Carthy, Treatment of Tuberculosis, 25, 49.

[15] Leinster Express, 2 February 1909.

[16] Leinster Express, 29 June 1912.

[17] RCPI Blayney Collection, Items 36, 95.

[18] Leinster Express, 9 November 1912.

[19] Leinster Express, 3 October 1908.

[20] Brennan, Opening Dusty Boxes, 44.

[21] Dr E.F. Hogan, Dr T.F. Higgins et al to N.J. Blayney, 30 July 1913 (RCPI Blayney Collection, Item 42).

[22] Leinster Express, 31 January 1914.

[23] Leinster Express 7 November 1903.

[24] Leinster Leader 7 November 1903.

[25] Leinster Express, 14 November, 1903.

[26] Leinster Express, 14 November 1903.

[27] Leinster Leader, 14 November 1903.

[28] Leinster Leader, 14 November 1903.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

The Historian’s Kaleidoscope – Making Sense of Medical History in Times of a Pandemic

In this blog post, Dr Claas Kirchhelle, Lecturer of the History of Medicine at University College Dublin (Wellcome Trust University Award) and Fellow of the Oxford Martin School, urges medical historians to critically reflect on the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for their field.

Trying to make sense of COVID-19 is to look through a kaleidoscope. Within its brief existence, the virus has revealed the incredible complexity of interspecies relationships, economic interdependencies, health system designs, international relations, the many fallouts of the climate emergency, and differing cultural perceptions of disease and biomedicine. It has also unleashed a storm of attempts by historians, social scientists, and public commentators to make sense of the present against the backdrop of previous epidemics and pandemics.

From late January 2020 onwards, academic journals, websites, blogs, and media outlets saw a burst of contributions analysing the current pandemic in light of earlier ones, commenting on exacerbated social and racial inequalities, cultural biases in attributing causes and solutions, the biopolitics of lockdown, and hopes for a unified drive for a cure. Initial responses were soon complemented by a second layer of debates about how far one pandemic could be compared to another, ground-zero empiricism, and whether anything meaningful could be said before COVID-19 itself had become history.

As a medical historian, I followed debates with a mix of fascination and exhaustion. Holed up in my apartment, I was taking it in turns with my partner – also an academic – to care for our confused toddler while trying to meet funding and publication deadlines. In between writing, zoom calls, and potty training, I was, however, struck by the way that many exchanges were missing their mark. The version of history that was being debated was often too grand or too diminutive to adequately reflect the discipline’s value for public debates and decision-making.

Critics were of course right to highlight that it was too early to provide grand analyses and wrong to make facile comparisons to earlier pandemics. Nobody can accurately predict how interactions between this novel pathogen and its human hosts will evolve and it will likely take decades to retrospectively unpick the complex biosocial interactions that brought us here. However, history is also not as speechless as some seem to imply. While I would distrust anyone proposing a definite analysis of COVID-19, I would be similarly wary of those waiting for the elusive point when current events have ‘safely’ become history.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a biological and social event that is the result of contingent emergence. However, it is playing out within the structural constraints of a human and environmental playing field that was shaped over decades – if not centuries. Historians are uniquely placed to appreciate both the contingency of SARS-CoV-2 and to analyse its pandemic playing field. The relevance of such analyses for decision-making and public discourse is great. I have plenty of colleagues whose excellent work on vaccines, public and global health, infectious disease, mental health, and civil emergencies makes them ideally placed to provide critical context for varying policy responses. Scholars of the medical humanities can also highlight implicit biases and shaky data underpinning some of the epidemiological, behavioural, and economic models guiding current policy. By looking back at previous pandemic or epidemic events, some may even be able to make educated guesses about likely social flashpoints, governance problems, finance bottlenecks, and ethical dilemmata. None of the colleagues I know would make the claim that historical analysis holds universal answers. However, I think that many of them would be comfortable saying that decontextualized policymaking and public debates can be just as flawed – and that expertise from the medical humanities should be represented in official expert bodies.

Reflecting on my own work on antibiotics, laboratory surveillance, and infectious disease control, I have become keenly aware of the kaleidoscopic qualities of the current crisis. All of my research fields have been affected. COVID-19 has accelerated many of the structural constraints that have long prevented equitable and unbiased health provision, international coordination, and global solidarity. However, it has also provided interesting points of departure.

Writing about change, challenges, and prospects in the areas I know best has aided my own historical sense-making and prompted useful exchanges with other disciplines. Together with colleagues from the biomedical and environmental sciences, I have drawn on historical precedents to warn about the likely rise of antibiotic use to deal with bacterial superinfections and resulting selection for antimicrobial resistance (AMR). However, we were also keenly aware that the unprecedented global sharing of scientific information about COVID-19, formation of patent pools, and mobilisation of public funds may also point to new solutions for the long-standing ‘empty pipeline’ problem for antibiotic development. With collaborators from the social sciences, I have reflected on the chequered past of human infection studies in accelerating vaccine development but also exploiting marginalised and colonial populations. We warned that the race for effective SARS-CoV-2 vaccines and the growing tendency to ‘offshore’ trials necessitated a new international framework for infection studies. I was also honoured to reflect on how contagious disease can bring out the best and worst in societies with my former PhD supervisor. Interviews with talented and genuinely interested journalists have also allowed me to stress how the history of drug and vaccine development makes it clear that ensuring equitable access must be at the forefront of current decision-making.

None of these points are particularly revolutionary and I do not pretend to be able to offer a comprehensive interpretation of an unfolding global crisis from the desk in my bedroom. It is, however, clear to me that COVID-19 is rapidly changing the fields I study and the way I see their history. Although I may only be able to see individual pieces of this vast kaleidoscope of change, the time to critically reflect on these changes started in January 2020. To publish these reflections is to stimulate debate, add a critical longitudinal and structural take to public sense-making, and – in my case – to optimistically push for some good things to come out of this global event.

Claas Kirchhelle

Dr Claas Kirchhelle is a Lecturer in the History of Medicine at University College Dublin’s School of History. His research explores the global history of antibiotics, infection control, and the microbial environment. Supported by a Wellcome Trust University Award, he is currently writing an interdisciplinary history of global infectious disease surveillance after 1920. Claas studied history at the Universities of Munich (MA, 2012), Chicago (MA, 2011), and Oxford (DPhil, 2016). He has published across the humanities and biomedical sciences and was awarded the University of Oxford’s 2016 Dev Family Prize for the best dissertation in the history of medicine and the 2020 ICOHTEC Turriano Prize for Pyrrhic Progress. Antibiotics in Anglo-American Food Production (Rutgers University Press). A new monograph on the history of British animal welfare science, activism, and politics is forthcoming with Palgrave Macmilan (2021). Claas has extensive experience in public engagement and broadcasting and co-curated the award-winning Back from the Dead (2016/2017) and Typhoidland (2020/2021) exhibitions on penicillin and the past, present, and future of typhoid control.

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Now Enrolling for 2020/2021: MA in the History of Welfare and Medicine in Society, School of History, UCD

In this blog post, we introduce UCD’s MA in the History of Welfare and Medicine in Society and look back at the work and achievements of some former students.

MA in the History of Welfare and Medicine in Society

Academic Year 2020/2021
Graduate Taught (level 9 nfq, credits 90)

Medicine, illness and welfare occupy a central place in all our lives. The MA in the History of Welfare and Medicine in Society is designed to enable you to understand the place of medicine and welfare in society and history (c.1750-1980) and engage with critical debates through various media including film, literature, and art, amongst others.

The programme explores the main trends within welfare and medical history from social history, gender history, post-colonial history to individual experiences of poverty, and of illness throughout history. You will explore how medicine and welfare regimes and policies overlapped with culturally constructed conceptions of femininity and masculinity, race and ethnicity. 

The modules are taught through seminars and you will develop expertise in presenting, analytical thinking, effective communication, and writing with clarity and precision. You will also partake in a lively seminar series and benefit from a vibrant postgraduate research community.

The dissertation, at the core the MA, allows you to engage your own research-based interests. 

Your fellow students will be from diverse academic backgrounds and the MA is popular among healthcare professionals keen to understand the historical contexts that shaped current practices and systems.

The MA has a reputation for excellence and is taught be lecturers with international profiles in the field.  

Why do this MA?

Graduates have secured employment in the fields of media, education, politics and in private and public sector management and policy.

Graduates have also proceeded to PhD studies at Irish, British, and European institutions, securing prestigious external funding.  

Assoc Prof Catherine Cox, Director,
UCD Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland

Further Details

Please see the course description for the MA in the History of Welfare and Medicine in Society at UCD Graduates Studies.


Former MA Students

In 2013 David Durnin contributed a post to this blog about Irish doctors in the first world war. A former MA student, David completed his PhD in history at the UCD Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland (2014) and received several grants and awards for his work including an Irish Research Council postgraduate scholarship and the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland History of Medicine Research Award. David has published the following books:

Another former MA student David Kilgannon published a post for us about AIDS and history in Ireland in 2015. David recently completed a Wellcome Trust funded PhD at the Department of History, NUI Galway, exploring changing responses to those with an intellectual disability in Ireland in the period 1947-84.

Our community of graduate scholars continues to grow. Posts by our most recent graduates, based on their MA research include:

Monday, 6 January 2020

Irish Medical Responses to Problem Drinking from Institutionalisation to Public Health: Part II

In the second instalment of this two-part special, Dr Alice Mauger, Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the UCD Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland explores the changing approaches of medical practitioners and psychiatrists to problem drinking in Ireland since 1922.

Read Part I here.

After the First World War, medical interest in the “drink question” began to wane and political barometers swung strongly towards attempts to limit drinking. Among the most infamous of these tactics was the United States’ prohibition experiment, which resulted in a nationwide ban on drinking from 1920 until 1933. Meanwhile, the newly formed Irish Free State government lost little time overhauling liquor regulations, restricting pub opening hours and decreasing the availability of pub licenses. While this demonstrated state concern about both levels of drunkenness and the money being spent on drink, the same government was slow to reflect on the treatment of alcoholism.  

New York City Deputy Police Commissioner watching agents 
pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of 
Prohibition. Source: United States Library of Congress's 
Prints and Photographs division.

A New 'Disease View'

Beginning in the United States, a new ‘disease view’ of alcohol addiction emerged after the abolition of prohibition in 1933. The fundamental difference between this new medical concept and its nineteenth-century predecessor was the perception of drink itself. While the earlier interpretation saw alcohol as an inherently addictive substance, posing a risk for everyone, the post-prohibition version portrayed drink as harmless for most but with the potential to cause disease in a minority of vulnerable or ‘defective’ individuals – labelled alcoholics.

In an era of mounting medical concerns over immunisation, tuberculosis and infant mortality, accompanied by the general rise of preventative medicine, this ‘disease view’ of alcoholism did not take hold in Ireland until after the Second World War. In the meantime, there was a marked decrease in alcohol consumption in Ireland during the first half of the twentieth century.

Alcoholism and Mental Hospitals

In 1945 new legislation broke ground, giving statutory recognition to the role played by mental health services in supplying addiction treatment. The Mental Treatment Act, 1945 specifically provided for the admission of ‘addicts’, including those addicted to alcohol, to mental hospitals. This signalled growing acceptance of alcoholism as a disease requiring treatment. It also cemented what was already a reality for the Irish psychiatric services. As mentioned in a previous post, Irish mental hospitals had been principal treatment centres for problem drinkers since the nineteenth century and by 1900, 1 in 10 admissions were attributed to ‘intemperance in drink’. 

In spite of these developments, it was not until the 1960s that psychiatrists began openly advocating the disease theory. This decade also saw the establishment of the first specialist wards for alcoholism in Dublin psychiatric hospitals like St John of God’s in Stillorgan and St Patrick’s Hospital on James’ Street. Concurrently, there was a marked rise in the number of alcohol-related admissions to psychiatric hospitals from 561 in 1958 to 1,964 in 1967.1 It is uncertain whether these figures represented an increase in the actual numbers of alcohol-related cases presenting or in the numbers being identified. What is clear, however, is that by this point the role played by psychiatric services for alcoholism in Ireland had crystallised and psychiatrists had apparently grown more comfortable with this function.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dr John G. Cooney

Possibly the most avid individual advocate of the new disease view was Dr John G. Cooney, a consultant psychiatrist at St Patrick’s Hospital who became one of Ireland’s leading authorities on the psychiatric treatment of alcoholism.2 Speaking at the North Dublin Medical Club Symposium in 1963, Cooney urged his medical colleagues to accept the disease view:
Too often doctors have allowed their view of alcoholics to be distorted by emotional factors. Commonly their own subconscious fears regarding alcoholism have been projected on to their alcoholic patients. If one is to treat alcoholism successfully whether in hospital of in general practice one must feel as well as believe that the alcoholic is ill and suffering from a disease just as surely as a diabetic is suffering from his excess blood sugar.3

Resistance to the Disease View

The theory’s central tenet, however, did not sit well with many Irish commentators. After all, the premise that alcoholism constituted an inherent ‘flaw’ in the individual was a difficult pill to swallow in a country with increasing psychiatric admissions for that very disorder. Illustrating this point in 1962, a consultant psychiatrist at St John of God’s, Dr Desmond McCarthy, complained:
One of the great difficulties in this country was that alcoholism was not accepted as an illness. It still carried a social stigma, a rather foolish way of looking at a serious disease. The basic illness was often hidden under other names for face-saving thus there were no reliable figures for alcoholism.4
Evidence of a persistent stigma around alcoholism in Ireland was produced as late as 1969. Reporting on an alcoholism seminar for general practitioners in Waterford that May, the Irish Times’ medical correspondent, David Nowlan wrote of the survival within the Irish medical profession of ‘medieval attitudes’. Nowlan described how one general practitioner had stood up at the end of the seminar and ‘stated quite categorically that alcoholism was a sin in the face of God and against God’s works deserving of only censure and moralistic indignation’.5

Social and Cultural Factors

By the 1970s, psychiatrists were devoting some space to the impact of social and cultural change in Ireland. According to Cooney, modernisation had brought with it a variety of new factors which were now influencing Irish drinking habits. These included increasing social mobility in rural Ireland leading to more money being spent on drink; the replacement of dimly-lit, all-male pubs with brightly-lit bars and singing lounges catering to younger married couples; expense account drinking in the cities following the patterns of London and New York; and the centrality of alcohol on all social occasions and in many business transactions. Cooney’s observations were not unfounded. The 1960s had seen a massive economic boom, resulting in greater disposable income and a dramatic climb in expenditure on drink. Inevitably, Cooney argued, ‘all this exposure to alcohol has led, in the opinion of many workers in the field, to an increase in alcoholism’.6

Campaign Poster for Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, 2015.
 With thanks to Alcohol Action Ireland

A Public Health Approach to Alcohol

Cooney’s concerns about increasing exposure to alcohol were illustrative of those in Ireland and elsewhere. The 1970s marked a turning point in attitudes towards drink in many countries. By now, epidemiologists were linking rising per capita consumption with a concurrent growth in alcohol-related harm, including deaths from liver cirrhosis and convictions for drunkenness and drink-driving. Alcohol therefore came to be presented, once again, as a problem for everyone rather than a minority deemed predisposed to alcoholism. Designated the ‘public health’ perspective, this approach gradually supplanted the disease concept. Yet, in spite of the efforts of its proponents, and its acceptance and promotion by the World Health Organisation, until quite recently governments have been reluctant to impose corresponding legislation. 

The passing of Ireland’s Public Health (Alcohol) Act in 2018 therefore represents a landmark in alcohol policy. It also reveals an unprecedented unity among medical responses to problem drinking today. Internationally, it has received strong backing from leading public health organisations and in Ireland, the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland have partnered with national charity, Alcohol Action Ireland, to form the Alcohol Health Alliance Ireland, for whom a central aim has been to support the Bill. Meanwhile, the President of the College of Psychiatrists in Ireland, Dr John Hillery, stated in November 2017: ‘the College supports the bill in its entirety, not a diluted version, to protect the mental health of our society’.7

Alice Mauger

Dr Alice Mauger
Dr Alice Mauger is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland in the School of History, University College Dublin. Her research project 'Alcohol Medicine and Irish Society, c. 1890-1970' is funded by the Wellcome Trust. The project explores the evolution of medicine's role in framing and treating alcoholism in Ireland. It aims to make a significant contribution to the medical humanities, exploring historical sources to better understand and contextualise Irish society's relationship with alcohol. She was awarded a PhD by UCD in 2014 for her thesis which examined public, voluntary and private asylum care in nineteenth-century Ireland. Prior to this she completed the MA programme on the Social and Cultural History of Medicine at the UCD Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland, UCD. Both her MA and PhD were funded by the Wellcome Trust.

She has published on the history of psychiatry and alcoholism in Ireland including '"The Holy War Against Alcohol": Alcoholism, Medicine and Psychiatry in Ireland, c. 1890–1921’ and a full-length monograph: The Cost of Insanity in Nineteenth-Century Ireland: Public, Voluntary and Private Asylum Care (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) which is available via open access and in hardcopy.

1. John G. Cooney, ‘Rehabilitation of the Alcoholic’, Journal of the Irish Medical Association 63, no. 396 (1970), 219-22, on 220.
2. Cooney was responsible for the establishment of a specialist treatment programme for alcohol-related disorders at St Patrick’s, published extensively on the topic of alcoholism and was a founding member of the Irish National Council on Alcoholism.
3. John G. Cooney, ‘Alcoholism and Addiction in General Practice’, Journal of the Irish Medical Association 53, no. 314 (1963), 54-7, on 55-6.
4. ‘Problem of Treating Alcoholism’, Irish Times, 3 March 1962, 7.
5. David Nowlan, ‘Hidden Disease Dangers: Doctors Discuss Alcohol’, Irish Times, 17 May 1969, 4.
6. John G. Cooney, ‘Alcohol and the Irish’, Journal of the Irish Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons 1, no. 2 (1971), 54.
7. ‘Public Health (Alcohol) Bill for Discussion in Senate Today: College highlights Alcohol’s Role in Completed and Attempted Suicides and Mental Health Difficulties’, The College of Psychiatrists in Ireland Blog (21 Nov 2017).