Galway’s new anaesthetist: ‘Stuffed with learning’

Dr Michael O’Malley (joint founder of St Brides), Sal and Conor, outside No 6 The Crescent. These were Conor ‘s consulting rooms but he and Sal lived in various homes in the town, including Lenaboy Park, and Barna.

Dr Michael O’Malley (joint founder of St Brides), Sal and Conor, outside No 6 The Crescent. These were Conor ‘s consulting rooms but he and Sal lived in various homes in the town, including Lenaboy Park, and Barna.

Two remarkable Galway people, Conor O’Malley and Sal Joyce, grew up in the Maam Valley, Connemara, in the closing years of the 19th century. Although they were cousins, they probably never met until they were both doctors working side by side in the Galway Central Hospital, on Prospect Hill, the forerunner of the present University Hospital, in the 1920s.

Even though both the O’Malleys and the Joyces were successful sheep farmers and wool merchants, they didn’t speak to each other. Like many family rows the reason for the original falling out became less clear as the years went by. Nevertheless each would cross the road rather than pass by on the same side.

The education of these two bright young people was initially similar but later remarkably different. The O’Malleys, all fluent Irish speakers, were a united and proud collection of families all living near to each other at Kilmilkin or Muintir Eoin, with parents who strongly believed in education.* Having no faith in the local national school, Conor’s father Peter, and uncles, each paid £10 per annum for a private teacher, Peaitsín Pheige, to teach the boys. This continued until the practice was eventually stopped when their local landlord, Lord Leitrim, demanded an end to the practice. But it was too late to quench the boys thirst for learning. The older boys taught the smaller ones, and so, on until all had attained a very high level of competence.

Conor, the youngest of 14 children, was inspired by his eldest brother John Francis, who had become a doctor in London and later president of the Royal College of Surgeons. He encouraged the others to become doctors. Conor studied for the matriculation examination by correspondence, and to his delight, was accepted to study engineering at UCG.

Conor O’Malley absolutely loved university life. He transferred first to arts and then to medicine. He enjoyed debating and writing; and excelled at boxing and sprinting. He played on the first university team to win the Sigerson Cup. Still full of youthful energy, when he qualified in 1917, he joined the British navy medical corps. He served on the aircraft carrier HMS Furious, and later described the morning in 1918 when his ship sailed out from Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, to take surrender of the great German high seas fleet. ‘It was an awe inspiring moment when the German battleships we had feared, The Hindenburg, The Van den Tam, etc, showed up out of the cold mist that morning…’ After the war Conor continued his studies in Mercer’s Hospital, Dublin, and in London, becoming an ear, nose and throat surgeon and ophthalmologist. He came back to Galway’s Central hospital, and St Brides, a private hospital on Sea Road, *** where his services were in much demand. He later became professor of ophthalmology at UCG, a post he held for 28 years.

Men of Aran

Sal Joyce’s early schooling with her older brother and three sisters, was also given by a private tutor, Mr Finley, at their home Joyce Grove. Later when the family moved to the village of Leenane, the children attended the local national school, and from there Sal was sent as a border to the St Louis Convent, Kiltimagh, Co Mayo. Her husband Conor, humorously described the convent school as a place where the pupils were stuffed with learning but starved for food and heat.

Despite these deprivations, Sal was an exceptional pupil and qualified to study medicine at UCG, achieving her medical degrees six years after Conor. During which time she was called home to nurse her brother Patrick who in 1919 had caught the so called Spanish flu, a world wide epidemic. He was the eldest in the family and farmed with his father. Patrick died, and sadly was followed later by her father. Despite these set backs Sal studied the modern methods of anaesthesia in both the Adelaide and the Meath hospitals, and in London.

She was anxious to get an appointment in the Galway area, to be close to home. She served as a locum for Dr James O’Brien, at Kilronan, Inis Mór. She was not impressed with the men of Aran. She wrote that having sailed the turf over from the mainland, the men ‘took their leisure’ while the women scrambled to unload the boats and haul the turf home.

Being a practical person she was equally unimpressed when one stormy evening a man came over by boat urgently seeking help for his wife in labour on Inis Mean. His wife was not doing well, she was overdue. But when Sal asked for volunteers to row her over to the island, the men refused. It was considered bad luck to be at sea in a storm with a woman onboard. Sal went to the police station and asked the guard to persuade the men. “Are you afraid of me?” she asked. One man replied: “Don’t ask that. But if you go now in the storm, we will have to try and find what’s left of four oarsmen and you. The sick woman won’t be any better off.”

However, seeing how determined Sal was to go to help the woman, the men sullenly agreed to go. In the end Sal could do little more than use her physical skills as there was no nurse on Inis Mean; antibiotics had not been discovered, and obstetric forceps were not allowed for delivering babies. The mother was thankfully made safe, and the child was born.

Coming home

When she saw the position advertised for a visiting anaesthetist in the Central hospital, Galway, with a salary of £100 per annum, she applied. She was highly recommended by her professors as a doctor who ‘had studied anaesthesia at various London hospitals, including University College Hospital, Charing Cross Hospital, Queen Mary’s Hospital and Chelsea’s Hospital for Women, and is familiar with the more modern types of anaesthetics and their administration. She has a good and practical knowledge of radiology, has a fair knowledge of Irish.’

Dr Sal Joyce was duely appointed, the first and only woman consultant among a team of men, whose duties not only included assisting at every operation, but to train the junior doctors and senior nurses on the use of administrating anaestethics by gas. Up to that point, anaesthetics were delivered by the rather crude chloroform way.

The salary of £100 per annum was pathetically small, and Sal would spend most of her professional life trying to be put on a scale equal to what was being paid to men. But there were compensations. She met her future husband, and medical colleague, Conor O’Malley. Any differences that may have existed between the O’Malleys and the Joyces were immediately forgotten. They were married in Dublin in October 1924, and went to live at 6 The Crescent, the first of several Galway homes, where Conor proudly put his doctor’s plate on the wall.

Next week: Sal’s fight for equal pay for equal work.

NOTES: *Pádraic Ó Máille, a first cousin of Conor’s, founded the Irish Volunteers in Connemara. He played a decisive role in the 1916 Rising, and was later elected to the Dáil. Incredibly, he was indirectly responsible for the execution of his former comrade-in-arms Liam Mellows. O’Maille was injured and his companion Sean Hales TD was killed by a gunman in 1922. Mellows was executed as a reprisal.

**Four of Conor’s brothers also became doctors. Thirty eight members of the family over three generations, were also doctors.

*** Established by Dr William Sandys, and surgeon Michael O’Malley (Conor’s brother ), in 1916. Thousands of Galway babies were born in St Brides.

**** Three per cent of the world’s population died in the pandemic, including 10,000 in Ireland.

I am taking the above from an article in the current Journal of the Galway Archarological and Historical Journal, Volume 67, Sal O’Malley: Pioneering Anaesthetist - a Memoire, by Ann O’Malley Kelly.

Additional information from the author, and Aideen Foley’s essay on Conor O’Malley in Dictionary of Irish Biography.

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