On March 2 1875, the medical officer of the Athenry Dispensary District, Dr WJ Leonard, wrote an urgent letter to the Local Government Board (LGB ) in Dublin, regretting to report a ‘very bad case of smallpox’ which had come into his district the previous day. He briefly described how it was discovered:
William Burke, 22 years of age, took ill the previous Saturday February 17. He was employed as a baker’s assistant to Mr Patrick Corcoran in Tuam, where he was resident. The local doctor, Dr Turner, visited him and ordered his ‘immediate removal to hospital, and that his bed and blanket should be destroyed’.
However, William asked to go home to his family at Tyaquin. Mr Corcoran assisted him to the railway station, where he walked with ‘great difficulty’. He was left seated in a carriage while Corcoran returned to the office to purchase a ticket. Then ‘fearing detention by the constabulary, Corcoran left Burke seated in the carriage and returned home.’
Dr Leonard hoped that ‘the poor sufferer may recover’, for ‘he suffered dreadful gastric irritation on the way from Tuam’. However, on arriving at Athenry, Burke, with assistance, made his way to a friend, a publican named Nolan, who lent him a coat (since returned ), and setting him on his way on Whelan’s car, to Tyaquin six miles distant.’
Dr Brodie, the Local Government Inspector, became immediately involved. He updates the LGB in a letter (March 21 ), saying he called to check on young Burke, to find that he had died. Burke’s father, who insisted on carrying his son to his grave, has since contacted the disease. The priest who attended Burke, Rev Walsh, has also contacted the disease, and lies ill at Kinneen’s Hotel, Athenry. This is a busy hotel especially with commercial travellers ‘the danger of propagation is obvious’.
Some action was immediately required. The hotel was to be closed until it is thoroughly disinfected. If the proprietor, Mr Kinneen ‘a wealthy man who appears to ignore the law against the spread of infections’ and that if he continues not to cooperate, the police were to enforce a closure order.
Legal proceedings have begun against Mr Corcoran for wilfully assisting William Burke to return to his home at Tyaquin, when specific instructions were given that he was to be conveyed immediately to hospital, as he was clearly suffering from ‘a dangerous contagious disease.’ *
The question of hospitalisation is raised following another case of the disease, this time a 12 years old boy who had been vaccinated. He lived with his father and mother, niece, and five other children, at Newcastle, about three miles from Athenry. Dr Leonard feared that removal of the boy to the Loughrea Workhouse hospital, a distance of 12 or 14 miles ‘would be attended with serious danger’.
A specially dedicated ‘hospital’ or outhouse, isolated from the community, would be the preferred solution, and the urgency to find a suitable premises would preoccupy the medical authorities for some days. Understandably there was a growing unease in the community. As word spread that there was an outbreak of smallpox in the area, people were understandably nervous. Transporting patients across the county might be problematic. In the meantime it was decided to leave the boy with his family.
Fr Walsh died from the disease, and is buried that same day. Mr Kineen, now clearly alarmed, promises to have ‘the bed, bedding, and every article of furniture in the room burned, the paper removed from the wall, and the wall thoroughly lime-washed’.
Compulsory vaccination of children against smallpox was introduced in Ireland 1863. Within a decade or so, the instance of smallpox was very much reduced, but it sometimes reappeared, out of the blue, in places like Athenry causing widespread concern. **
Of all the infectious diseases smallpox was the most feared. Parents dreaded the alarming signs of fever, vomiting, and severe skin rash, leading to 80 percent death in children. Survivors risked being left blind, with facial scarring, but lucky to be still alive. It was not unusual to see adults with pitted faces, the sign of a childhood infection.
The Galway Vindicator, in a leading article on March 24 1875, reckoned that this outbreak of smallpox was imported into county Galway by vagrants, first appearing in Dunmore and then Tuam, where there were many fatal cases.
‘The disease was reputedly brought from Tuam to Athenry by a baker named Walsh (Burke? ) who came home on March 1 with smallpox, and died a few days later.
‘Within a few weeks it was widespread throughout the town and neighbourhood despite a vaccination campaign. By May there were over 100 deaths, the town was isolated, and Dr Leonard converted part of his house into a hospital, with additional sheds at the back, to accommodate patients.’
‘Mrs Burton Persse of Moyode, opened a fund for the relief of the town, but the other landlords were not as helpful.’
It is likely that in the Dublin of the time, smallpox was ever present, at least until the effects of mass vaccination reduced its virulence. The chairman of the Tuam Board of Guardians, Robert Bodkin, returned from Dublin where he had spent a week. He felt unwell leaving the city, and now resides at his home having been ‘attacked with smallpox’.
A distressing letter from Dr Leonard April 14, who was called to visit Catherine Cannon, who resides in a lodging house kept by her aunt in Athenry, part of which is a bakery. Eight other people share the same dwelling. “The poor afflicted creature, who has scarcely sufficient covering, has no mother, her father was never a help to her, and not able even if willing, to attend to her wants. She is suffering from smallpox and piteously asked me to have her removed to hospital. She is entirely destitute’.
Dr Leonard complains to the Local Government Board that when he sent an order to the hospital, attached to the Loughrea workhouse, for the immediate removal of Catherine he was refused. Instead the relieving officer, Thomas Lally, called to the doctor’s house, and without consulting the Guardians in Loughrea, he refused to remove the patient, and gave 2s for her father as a relief.
Dr Leonard demands to know if he is disbarred from discharging his duty to the suffering poor: ‘I must respectfully ask the Board if the union hospital is open to smallpox patients, and if such, inform the relieving officer of his duty.’
Next week: Crowds oppose the transfer of smallpox patients to the Loughrea hospital, resulting in a riot.
NOTES: * The case against Patrick Corcoran is heard on May 10 1875, and he ‘was fined £2.10s, or in default, one month’s imprisonment.’
** The early methods of smallpox vaccination were crude to say the least. Infectious material, perhaps scabs or pus, were taken from an infected person, or sometimes from a corpse. That material was scratched on the skin of the recipient, who, hopefully developed a less severe infection from which he/she would recover and develop immunity. This, Dr Ciarán Wallace, TCD, says was as risky as it sounds.
Edward Jenner’s discovery, in 1798, that inoculation with the much milder cowpox, produced a similar resistance to smallpox, was a real breakthrough. Jenner’s method became widespread, and was first introduced to Ireland in 1800. By 1863 his vaccination method was deemed so successful that it was made compulsory, along with the registration of births, for all infants in Britain and Ireland. You could be fined if your child was not vaccinated. This created determined opposition in England, and the emergence of the British Anti - Vaccination League which led to a relaxation in the law, but in Britain only. Ireland did not object to its compulsory nature. It was accepted as a godsend.
George Bernard Shaw sent a letter of support to the League’s 1911 conference, describing the distribution of ‘dirty and dangerous’ calf lymph to children as ‘nothing short of attempted murder’.
Sources this week include Galway - A Medico Social History, by James P Murray, published by Kenny’s Bookshop 1992; and Smallpox Athenry - Correspondence between the Local Government Board and its inspector with regard to the epidemic of smallpox, published August 13 1875.
Listen to Tom Kenny and Ronnie O'Gorman elaborating on topics they have covered in this week's paper and much more in this week's Old Galway Diary Podcast.