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Sorrow and Progress

By: DR. JENNIFER POPE

Monday 11 November 2019

In the summer of 2018, there was an epidemic across many early childhood settings of E-Coli VTEC. This is a very dangerous infection that affected many children and can lead to hospitalisation and severe complications in some cases. Several early childhood settings had to close briefly over the summer, however, the source was not identified. As a lecturer in child health and well-being I spend a lot of time talking about how we promote children's health and well-being.

Over the last century there have been lots of advances in medicine, hygiene and health. When we look at vaccinations for example, and consider how diseases like polio have been eradicated in this country it is remarkable how far we have come. However, some infections and diseases are more difficult to eradicate.

When researching previous serious cases of food poisoning in Ireland, I came across the tragic story of ten girls that died in the Mount St Vincent Orphanage (St Vincent Industrial school) in Limerick 111 years ago this very month. My interest in the case was particularly sparked as my office is in the Mount St. Vincent building, where these girls lived and died, as it is now part of the Mary Immaculate College Campus. It has been named the John Henry Newman Building. My colleagues and I walk the corridors that these girls walked, and before the building was renovated the history of the building was almost palpable.

Over the course of a few days in November 1908, ten girls in the orphanage died and over seventy were ill. The cause was not deemed to be influenza, tuberculosis or scarlet fever, but down to food poisoning from a beef stew made in the technical class the day before. The detailed inquest and medical notes trace the source and spread of infection in a very clinical way. They describe how it was the older girls who were mostly affected as they had made the stew and eaten it. Some of the older girls shared contaminated meat with some of the younger girls in the class below, possibly sisters. The youngest class, aged three to seven, had been made a soup with the bones of the meat, and none of them actually got sick. This broth had been boiled thoroughly.

The Sisters of Mercy annals describe ‘scenes of grief and wailing outside’ as parents and relatives enquired after their children and the Sisters themselves were ‘crushed with grief’. The Mayor of Limerick at the time described the event as ‘the most lamentable calamity which occurred in the city for a long period of years’. From a medical perspective, the seriousness of this case of food poisoning attracted significant attention both at home and abroad, at the time and even years later in medical textbooks, was still referred to as a ‘remarkable’ case. The scale and extent of the resulting illness and death of children was highly unusual, even in 1908.

Many marginalised children’s voices from the past have never been heard, or have been long forgotten. The young girls that died over a century ago in the orphanage were often referred to generically as 'inmates' so a key focus of my research has been to trace their tragic lives and remember these girls by telling their untold or forgotten stories and to remember them. Food hygiene is still a struggle for us today, inside and outside the home. While thankfully today, due to medical advances and improved hygiene devastating events such as this are rare, however, we must not be complacent. And we have to ensure that all children are treated equally, so all voices are heard.  We must remember to listen to the past and learn from it. And never forget.

For more information on e-coli click here.

Please click here to access further information and packs for your setting on the Safefood Rufus Handwashing Programme. 

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