Dr Sal O’Malley fought twenty-six years for equal pay

 The Central Hospital, Galway at Prospect Hill. 
It closed April 1956.

The Central Hospital, Galway at Prospect Hill. It closed April 1956.

Week II

It was never about the amount of money being paid to Dr Sal O’Malley, who was the first woman consultant appointed to the Galway Central Hospital in 1929, it was the principal of the thing.

Why should a woman, who was exceptionally well trained, and who had been acting as both a qualified anaesthetist, and teacher several years before her appointment, be paid a derisory sum compared to her male consultant colleagues?

When 14 years later she still had not received one penny extra, she took up her pen, and in surprisingly mild tones, she outlined her case, concluding: ‘Since my appointment by the Commissioners 14 years ago, I am still on my original salary of £100 per annum....I am one of the few members in Ireland of the British Association of Anaesthetists, and one of the few doctors specialising in anaesthetics. I would consider £250 per annum a reasonable remuneration.’

Her letter was directed to the honorary secretary of the medical staff, approved by him, and forwarded to the county manager’s office. The manager’s office wrote to the Mayo County Council, Cork County Council, Clare County Council, and Limerick County Council (all of which ran public health for Local Government ), who in turn passed on her comments to the minister’s office in Dublin.

Her request was refused.

‘Sweated labour’

In many ways it was a good thing that her request was turned down, as it began a series of letters (1943 to 1956 ) to the county manager and others outlining her duties, and we all get a snapshot of a vital medical practice in the middle of the last century.

It was suggested to Dr O’Malley that she could augment her salary by undertaking private work in either St Brides or the newly built Galvia (opened 1953 ), run by the ‘Blue Nuns’. This was not easy as she was on call six days a week, she was married to an equally busy surgeon and college lecturer, and she was the mother of five children.

She passionately felt that she should be paid a similar wage to that of her male colleagues. In 1945 Dr Sal O’Malley wrote: ‘My salary of £100 a year represents extreme type of sweated labour... When I was appointed 16 years ago the total salary of the whole surgical staff was £400 a year....In the interim the salaries of the surgical staff have climbed to their present figure while mine still remains at £100 a year.’

‘My duties, which have become increasingly complex with the expansion of the hospital, consist in training everyone who administers a general anaesthetic in the hospital. In detail I train two new House Surgeons every three months - with particular attention to safety first principles. I personally administer the more technically difficult anaesthetics, or take the cases that are bad surgical risks. I take some pride in the fact that during my 16 years dealing with very many thousands of anaesthetics I did not have a single fatality (Deo Gratias )...

‘On many occasions year in year out, I receive an urgent call from one operating theatre to another to rescue a patient in extremis from anaesthesia, in this respect I save the Central Hospital many coroners’ inquests.

‘A little reflection will show that I am virtually a whole-time anaesthetist to the hospital, to the detriment of my private work outside; since anyone of the six members of the surgical and dental staff may require me on any morning of the week. My hospital work precludes me from the simple routine bread and butter anaesthetic cases in private which are the mainstay of an anaesthetic practice.’

Impressive record

It all, however, came right in the end. In the mid 1950s, Sal painfully injured her ankle and was out sick. Panic in the hospital. The county manager, Clem Flynn, sought permission to call in one of two qualified anaesthetists in the district, and was forced to pay the going rate of a massive £3.30 per session. When eventually Sal returned to work it was obvious that her £100 a year was laughable. Her salary was immediately fixed at £750 per annum, later adjusted to a total of £809. 50 with an addition of £59.50 cost-of-living allowence. Twenty six years following her original appointment, Dr Sal O’Malley got justice. The quality of her work was taken for granted. Her impressive statistic of more than 4,500 tonsillectomies without one mortality has rarely been matched by anyone before or since.

Two to a bed

Finally, if over-crowding is a problem in today’s busy University College hospital, it was totally off the wall in the old Central Hospital, at Prospect Hill.

Between 1937 and 1943, it was necessary to send repeated circulars to all the doctors in County Galway, informing them of the dangerous overcrowding , and that only urgent cases could be admitted. At that time the nominal bed complement was 196 general medical and surgical beds, 20 tubercular, 20 maternity, and 63 fever, a total of 299 beds. On March 32 1944 there were 376 patients in the hospital, and on March 31 1945 there were 411.

The hazards of overcrowding and unsatisfactory nursing conditions were amply demonstrated by the many serious outbreaks of infectious diseases occurring within the hospital. In 1933/34 there was a serious outbreak of diphtheria, with 73 cases among the staff and patients in the general wards; in 1936 there were 13 cases of erysipelas (‘St Anthony’s Fire’ ); and four cases of typhoid in 1940 were attributed to a ‘carrier’ in the general wards.

Sal gave all the anaesthetics to her husband, Conor O’Malley’s, eye and ear patients. Prior to 1954 these operations were carried out in the Eye and Ear Hospital at the west corner of the campus. It was a converted old building with 18 beds often holding 36 adult patients. The patients slept two by two end to end. Once there was just one bed left but a man and a woman required accommodation. The sister in charge felt that it would be quite safe to have them share a bed for both would have bilateral eye patches...

Conor O’Malley, however, vetoed the suggestion.

Next Week: The Gathering Storm. Galway prepares for World War II

NOTES: I am taking today’s Diary from an article in the current Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Journal, Volume 67, Sal O’Malley: pioneering Anaesthetist - A Memoire, by Ann O’Malley Kelly.

Additional information from Galway: A Medico Social History, by James P Murray, published by Kenny’s Bookshop, 1992.

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