Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The historical development of Irish Hospitals and the importance of their records by Brian Donnelly

In this month's post, Brian Donnelly, senior archivist at the National Archives of Ireland, outlines the development of Irish hospitals from the eighteenth to the twentieth century.

Rotunda Hospital, Dublin
(RCPI Archival collections: VM/1/4/19)

The establishment of the voluntary hospitals

The early eighteenth century saw the establishment of voluntary hospitals by philanthropists, mainly in Dublin but also in the larger provincial towns. Jervis Street hospital (the Charitable Infirmary) was the first voluntary hospital Ireland and was founded in 1718.  Many of these, like Dr. Steeven’s Hospital (founded in 1733) and Mercer’s (founded 1734) would survive into the twentieth century.  The eighteenth century also saw the establishment of specialist hospitals, most of them voluntary, such as the Rotunda Lying In Hospital, founded in 1745, St. Patrick’s Hospital for mental illness, founded in 1747 and the Westmoreland Lock Hospital, for the treatment of venereal disease, in 1792. 

A modern public health service at county level began in 1765 when a parliamentary enactment provided for the erection and support of an infirmary for each county in Ireland and also permitted support for several existing hospitals, mainly in Dublin and Cork, out of public funds.  The county infirmaries were to be maintained by grand jury presentments, parliamentary grants and local subscriptions. The grand juries were groups of landowners who were called together by the High Sheriff in each county twice a year for legal and local administrative reasons.

The House of Industry hospitals, district lunatic asylums and medical dispensaries

The Dublin house of industry, a precursor of the workhouses of the nineteenth century, was founded in 1772. This institution became in time a vast concern, providing hospitals for the sick, an asylum for children, bridewells, penitentiaries for women and young criminals, a house of industry for vagrants, and cells for lunatics.  From it evolved the House of Industry hospitals – the Richmond, Whitworth and Hardwicke - and it played a major role in establishing the first and largest of the public lunatic asylums – the Richmond Lunatic Asylum – which opened for patients in 1814. Following the report of the Committee on the Lunatic Poor in 1817, the Lord Lieutenant was enabled by statute to build asylums where he considered necessary and, over the next half century, a well-developed mental health infrastructure was in place. By 1871, twenty two asylums were being financially supported by the grand juries. In 1850 a central asylum “for insane persons charged with offences in Ireland” was opened in Dundrum. This institution, the first criminal lunatic asylum in these islands, was under the direct control of the Lord Lieutenant who appointed the staff and made regulations for its management. 

A few dispensaries were supported by voluntary subscriptions in several of the larger towns and cities from the late eighteenth century, but it was not until 1805 that grand juries were authorised to give grants to dispensaries in rural areas. By the early 1830s, there were 450 dispensaries throughout the country, administered by committees of management and supported partly by subscriptions and partly by grand jury grants. There were fewer dispensaries in poorer areas, where voluntary contributions were wanting, and where it was difficult to raise enough money to start them. Inadequate as many of these dispensaries were, they represented the first steps towards domiciliary medical treatment of the rural population.

Robert Graves (1796-1853)
 (RCPI Archival collections: VM/1/2/S/35)

The impact of epidemics on the development of medical infrastructure

Epidemic disease was a major impetus in the development of a medical infrastructure. Typhus was a major scourge in Ireland in the early nineteenth century and, while several fever hospitals had been established in the larger towns in the late eighteenth century, it was not until 1807 that legislation was passed to encourage their construction throughout the country. A fever epidemic of unprecedented proportions raged in Ireland between 1816 and 1819. Under an 1818 Act, local boards of health could be established, supported partly by grand juries, which had extensive powers to combat disease. Grand juries were empowered to make presentments equal to twice the amount raised by private subscription to build fever hospitals. In 1819, legislation enabled officers of health to be appointed in parishes and a parish health tax could be levied. 

The establishment of the Central Board of Health in 1820 marked a major step in the centralisation of medical relief and local boards of health were to play a major role in combating epidemics over the following decades. The Central Board of Health collected statistics about local health conditions, advised where local boards of health should be established and when grant to hospitals should be made. When cholera broke out in Ireland in March 1832, the Central Board of Health, renamed the Cholera Board for the duration of the epidemic, supervised measures to combat the disease which included the establishment of local boards of health. 

Dublin hospitals like the Meath were at the forefront of the fight against infectious disease from the 1820s and introduced new methods of bedside clinical training to the English speaking world.  The census commissioners noted in 1854 that to these metropolitan hospitals “the Irish School of Medicine is largely indebted for the celebrity which it has so long enjoyed”. The Meath hospital received international recognition in the early nineteenth century due to the innovative teaching methods and research carried out by its physicians, Robert Graves and William Stokes. The latter had survived an attack of typhus in 1827 and identified the first case of cholera in Ireland in 1832. This new approach to clinical training had originated on the continent and its introduction into the Meath hospital heralded what has been described as the heroic age of the Irish School of Medicine. The voluntary hospital infrastructure continued to expand during the nineteenth century and following Catholic Emancipation many Catholic religious orders became involved in founding hospitals.

The Irish Poor Law, 1838

The enactment of the Irish Poor Law of 1838 was to have a dramatic effect on the provision of public health services for the rest of the nineteenth century. The country was divided into over one hundred and fifty poor law unions each with a workhouse at its centre and administered by a board of guardians.The structure of the poor law system, being modern and efficient and more easily subject to central control, was adapted on nearly all occasions where a new local function was created or an old one modified .The Medical Charities Act of 1851 led to the modernisation and extension of the old grand jury dispensary network under the boards of guardians and made a domiciliary medical service available to large sections of the population, the destitute poor, for the first time. 

By 1852, every poor law union had been divided into a number of dispensary districts, each with a dispensary and medical officer.  Patients had to apply to a poor law guardian for a ticket every time they wanted to attend a dispensary free of charge. Committees of management were responsible to the boards of guardians for the management of the dispensaries and appointing the dispensary doctors. In 1863, the dispensary doctors were made registrars of births and deaths and of Roman Catholic marriages and the practice of registering births, marriages and deaths was standardised on the 1st of January 1864. When registering deaths, the dispensary doctors were required to note the cause of death and duration of illness, thus enabling accurate statistics of mortality to be compiled for the first time. The registration of births enabled such measures as the compulsory vaccination of children against smallpox to be carried out effectively and by the end of the nineteenth century this scourge had, to a great extent, been eliminated.

While many boards of guardians had allowed the non-destitute to enter workhouse hospitals for treatment during the 1850s, the 1862 Poor Law (Amendment) Act officially opened the workhouse hospitals to the non-destitute sick. As a result of these developments, Ireland had one of the most advanced health services in Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, if policy and structure are to be taken as criteria. The Local government (Ireland) Act, 1898, replaced the grand juries by democratically elected county and rural district councils. The county councils took over the administration, either directly or through joint committees, of the district lunatic asylums.

Newcastle Sanatorium, Wicklow.
Image courtesy of NLI (L_ROY_05467)

Tuberculosis and the sanatorium

While Ireland had a low death rate from infectious disease in the first decade of the twentieth century, tuberculosis was the marked exception. The last years of the nineteenth century saw the first attacks made against the disease with the establishment of Newcastle Sanatorium in 1893. In 1904, the sanitary authorities of County Cork combined with Cork Corporation to establish Heatherside Sanatorium near Doneraile. In 1907, the Dublin City and County authorities established Crooksling Sanatorium. A Tuberculosis Prevention Act was passed in 1908 which gave the county councils power to provide sanatoria and brought the first veterinary inspectors into the employment of the sanitary authorities.  Peamount Sanatorium was founded in 1912 through the efforts of the Women’s National Health Association, the most formidable health pressure group of the early twentieth century.

Public health provision in post-independent Ireland

The turbulent years of the early 1920s saw some revolutionary changes in the public health system. In general, the boards of guardians outside Dublin were abolished and were replaced by county boards of health and public assistance, essentially sub-committees of the county councils. Most workhouses were closed to save money and central institutions called county homes were established in each county where the poor were to be relieved. While the newly styled county homes were to be reserved in theory for the old and infirm many soon included unmarried mothers, children and the mentally retarded.  Following the establishment of the Irish Free State the Department of Local Government and Public Health formally became, in 1924, the central government authority for local government and health administration. The Minister took over the Lord Lieutenant’s duties in relation to the mental hospitals. In 1930, the establishment of the Irish Hospitals Sweepstakes, a lottery to provide financial assistance to hospitals, provided a financial lifeline to many voluntary hospitals who were struggling to survive following a reduction in the number of endowments and bequests after the Great War.

The post-war period and declining mortality

There were significant developments in health care in the 1940s and 1950s. The Mental Health Treatment Act of 1945 modernised the legal code under which the mental services operated and provided important safeguards against the arbitrary detention of patients although the numbers of persons being treated continued to increase until, by 1959, there were 20,000 patients in Irish mental hospitals.  In the years immediately after 1945 there was a major effort to develop anti-tuberculosis services. The Tuberculosis (Establishment of Sanitoria) Act of 1945 permitted the Minister for Local Government and Public Health to arrange for the building of sanatoria and to transfer these to local authorities when completed. This was a major departure from established practice for the central authority as it stepped outside its normal functions of directing and co-ordinating the local services. Sanatoria were built at Dublin, Cork and Galway and were handed over when completed to the local authorities as was provided under the Act. 

There was also widespread building and conversion of buildings for the treatment of tuberculosis cases by local authorities.  These developments, together with the payment of maintenance allowances for dependents of persons undergoing treatment for infectious disease, mass radiography, BCG vaccination and new drugs such as streptomycin, led to a great decline in mortality for the disease and in the number of new cases appearing.  In 1947 the Department of Local Government and Public Health was divided into two separate departments. The Health Act of 1953 extended eligibility for general hospital services and maternity care to a much wider class. Health authorities were now required to provide child welfare clinic services and the school health service was improved. The dispensary service and dispensary doctors were transferred from the public assistance code to the health authorities. The old dispensary ticket system was done away with and replaced by medical cards. A more liberal code for the governing of county homes was introduced and provision was made for the development of a comprehensive rehabilitation service.

William Stokes (1804-78) and William Wilde (1815-76)
(RCPI Archival Collections: PDH/6/2/12)

1970s regionalisation and the Irish 'love affair' with the hospital bed

By the 1960s, it was felt that as the state had taken over the major financial interest in the health service there should be a new administrative framework combining national and local interests.  For technical and logistical reasons it was believed that better services could be provided on a regional rather than a county basis.  The establishment of the health boards under the Health Act, 1970, marked a major break in the link between the health services and county administration. At this time Ireland had the highest proportion of hospital beds to population in western Europe and the Irish hospital system was described as “one of a large number of small institutions scattered throughout the country”. The following decades would see the closure or amalgamation of many voluntary and state hospitals into larger units and the dismantling of the old mental hospital infrastructure.

The historical value of Irish hospital records

That Irish hospital records are of great historical interest has long been acknowledged. Dr. William Wilde, the internationally renowned nineteenth century physician and statistician, recognised one hundred and seventy years ago that the hospital registers of the Rotunda Hospital represented the ‘most interesting and earliest statistical tables on record’.  Ireland’s medical institutions, both voluntary and public, have a peculiarly rich and varied history and have played a paramount role in medical advances over the last three centuries.  While some collections of hospital archives are now safe in archival custody, many collections remain in peril. These archives have no protection under the law and it is often only through the good offices of interested hospital staff that material has been preserved. 

Brian Donnelly is a Senior Archivist at the National Archives with responsibility for Business and Hospital records. Images courtesy of Fergus Brády, Archivist, RCPI.