Tuesday 20 February 2018

'Extraordinary' doctor stood up to clergy and closed home

Dr James Deeny: was 'ahead of his time'
Dr James Deeny: was 'ahead of his time'
Majella O'Sullivan

Majella O'Sullivan

THE son of an eminent doctor who closed down a mother and child home because of its high infant mortality rate said his father tried to shed light on what was happening there almost 70 years ago.

James Deeny said his father was an "extraordinary" man who was "ahead of his time" and not afraid to speak out.

Dr James Deeny stood up to the clergy and the Sisters of the Sacred Heart when he closed down the notorious Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork temporarily after noticing an unusually high infant mortality rate.

He also sacked the nun who was matron of the labour ward.

"He never spoke to us about the report he carried out on Bessborough but he must have had a copy of it which would have been among his papers which we gave to the College of Surgeons after his death," Mr Deeny told the Irish Independent.

Dr Deeny, who became chief medical officer for the government in 1944 and oversaw the creation of the new Department of Health three years later, inspected the home when he became alarmed that 100 of the 180 babies born to single women there in one year had died.

Between 1945 and 1948, Dr Deeny, a devout Catholic, carried out an inspection at Bessborough and ordered it to be closed, disinfected and the nun in charge of the labour ward sacked.

Dr Deeny died in Rosslare, Co Wexford in April 1994 but prior to his death in 1989 published his memoir 'To Cure and to Care' in which he described his dealings with the home.

He wrote: "Going through returns for infant deaths in Cork, I noticed that there was something unusual and traced the matter to a home for unmarried mothers at Bessborough outside the city."

He visited the home, and noted: "Every baby had some purulent infection of the skin and all had green diarrhoea, carefully covered up.

"There was obviously a staphylococcus infection about.

"Without any legal authority I closed the place down and sacked the matron, a nun, and also got rid of the medical officer.

"The deaths had been going on for years. They had done nothing."

A few days later he had a visit in Dublin from the nuns' "man of affairs" and he was followed by the Dean of Cork, Monsignor Sexton. Finally, the Bishop of Cork complained to the Papal Nuncio, who went to see Eamon de Valera.

"The Nuncio, Archbishop Robinson, saw my report and said we were quite right in our action," Dr Deeny wrote.

"During the succeeding years, while many hundreds of babies were born each year, the number of deaths never exceeded single figures."

In her memoir 'The Light in the Window', published in 1998, former midwife at Bessborough June Goulding claimed women who gave birth there were denied pain relief during labour or penicillin when they developed abscesses from breast feeding.

She also claimed the nun who ran the labour ward when she worked there in 1951 – only a few years after Dr Deeny's firing of her predecessor – forbade "moaning or screaming" during childbirth.

Ms Goulding also said women who were torn during childbirth were not stitched as they had to "suffer the pain of being torn" to "atone for their sin".

Irish Independent

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