Wednesday 14 November 2018

The Irish miracle worker

Vincent Christopher Barry (1908-1975) may not be a household name, but an estimated 15 million people owe him their lives.

In a laboratory tucked away at the back of Trinity College, Dublin, in the 1950s, the humble Cork-born scientist stumbled on the cure for leprosy -- one of the world's most cruel and debilitating diseases.

By the time of his death in 1975, his work was so well known in Dublin, that the ambulance crew who attended him when he collapsed at his home recognised him instantly, his daughter, Dr Mairead Hannon proudly recalls.

Dr Hannon, a GP in Dalkey, Co Dublin, for over 40 years and the second eldest of his six children, said that among the large crowd of mourners who attended her father's funeral were the president of the day, Dr Cearbhall O Dalaigh and future president, Mary Robinson. Also present was his regular bus driver.

"My father always took the 47 bus into town and the driver knew all about him and his work and turned up to his funeral," she said.

Tonight, she and her sister and brother will attend a special lecture hosted by The Leprosy Mission in Dublin's Royal Irish Academy to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of her father, Dr Vincent Barry, one of Ireland's unsung heroes.

Like most great discoveries, it came about almost by accident. "You don't suddenly say 'Eureka' I have it. That isn't how it happens," pointed out Dr Hannon.

Born in Cork in 1908, the youngest of eleven children, Vincent Barry won a scholarship to UCD to study organic chemistry. There he met his future wife, Angela O'Connor, a scholarship student from Co Offaly.

After working for over a decade in Galway, the family moved to the capital in 1943 so he could take up a position with the Medical Research Council.

"I knew a bit about what he was doing and I used to visit him in the laboratory. I remember him being a very hard worker. I knew he was working on tuberculosis, which was really the big disease of the time.

"Then eventually TB started to become more manageable. From the bacteriological point of view, TB and leprosy are similar diseases. That is when he became interested in investigating the potential of his work in connection with leprosy," she said.

His research took him to India where he visited a leper colony. He also worked closely with a leprosy officer in Zimbabwe.

Leading a team of nine scientists, he synthesised a compound called B663 (Clofazimine), which went on to become part of the multi-drug antibiotic therapy used around the world in the treatment of leprosy.

Another member of the team, Stanley McElhinney, from Milford, Co Donegal, negotiated the introduction of B663 with the Indian government in the early 1970s. By 1981 the World Health Organisation had made it the mandatory treatment for leprosy.

"It appears they sold the patent to make the drug available in the developing world. When you think about it, that was an amazing step for these guys," said Ken Gibson, chief executive officer of The Leprosy Mission.

"And it was all very low key. By all accounts this was an extraordinary, quiet revolution," he added.

For most people, a six-month course of the drugs for the milder form of leprosy and a two-year course for the more severe form will cure them of the disease.

According to recent figures from the World Health Organisation (WHO), new cases detected worldwide have been decreasing at a rate of 21pc since 2003.

Dr Hannon is proud that her father has played such a crucial part in this global campaign to eradicate the disease.

"He was very interested in helping people and he was very patriotic. The fact that Ireland was doing something to help leprosy was very important to him.

"The figures for leprosy are very encouraging and the fact that it is almost completely curable now and that my father played a part in almost eradicating leprosy is a great success story," she said.

Long feared and shrouded in myths, leprosy first emerged in Asia in 6000BC and was brought to Europe by the Romans.

Ireland has its own reminders of the disease in place names such as Leopardstown. In St Mary's Cathedral in Limerick, the squints (or windows) where lepers were allowed to peer into the church during Sunday Mass are still visible.

A significant turning point came in the 1870s, when Norwegian physician Gerhard Hansen discovered that leprosy was caused by a bacterium and was not a hereditary, incurable condition.

Around the same time, Irishman, Wellesley Bailey had a life- changing experience in India when he worked among lepers.

Back in Dublin his fiancée and three friends raised £500 for his work, prompting the foundation of The Leprosy Mission, which today works in 50 countries around the world.

According to its current CEO, the Christian mission is still fighting to dispel taboos.

"In many places, people with leprosy will still be driven out from their communities and forced to live apart.

"This is despite the fact that it is one of the least contagious communicable diseases with an incubation period of approximately five years," said Mr Gibson.

He acknowledged that Ireland has made an enormous contribution to eradicating leprosy worldwide.

"Fifteen million people have been cured because of the work Dr Barry did. Realistically we could end leprosy within the next 30 years if a vaccine can be found and we are working on that already," he said.

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