Strangling Angel

BookStrangling Angel

Strangling Angel

Diphtheria and Childhood Immunization in Ireland

Reappraisals in Irish History, 9


December 20th, 2017



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This book is the first comprehensive history of the anti-diphtheria campaign and the factors which facilitated or hindered the rollout of the national childhood immunization programme in Ireland. It is easy to forget the context in which Irish society opted to embrace mass childhood immunization. Dwyer shows us how we got where we are. He restores Diphtheria’s reputation as one of the most prolific child-killers of nineteenth and early twentieth-century Ireland and explores the factors which allowed the disease to take a heavy toll on child health and life-expectancy. Public health officials in the fledgling Irish Free State set the eradication of diphtheria among their first national goals, and eschewing the reticence of their British counterparts, adopted anti-diphtheria immunization as their weapon of choice. An unofficial alliance between Irish medical officers and the British pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome placed Ireland on the European frontline of the bacteriological revolution, however, Wellcome sponsored vaccine trials in Ireland side-lined the human rights of Ireland’s most vulnerable citizens: institutional children in state care. An immunization accident in County Waterford, and the death of a young girl, raised serious questions regarding the safety of the immunization process itself, resulting in a landmark High Court case and the Irish Medical Union’s twelve-year long withdrawal of immunization services. As childhood immunization is increasingly considered a lifestyle choice, rather than a lifesaving intervention, this book brings historical context to bear on current debate.


'Strangling Angel is well written, interesting and thoroughly researched, drawing on a variety of new primary sources. It is not a history of immunisation in the British Isles, but differences in approach between progressive Ireland and Britain are highlighted. It will be useful to medical, political and social historians with an interest in infections and their prevention.'
William Dibb, British Society for the History of Medicine

'The documentary research in this book cannot be faulted. It includes painstaking examinations of wide-ranging archival materials as well as making extensive use of contemporary governmental, popular and scientific publications. ... Altogether, this is a promising first book from a talented scholar.'
Oisín Wall, Social History of Medicine

About The Author

Michael Dwyer is Lecturer in the School of History at University College Cork.