HomeWelcome: Stories of infectious disease and vaccination in mid-20th century Ireland

Welcome: Stories of infectious disease and vaccination in mid-20th century Ireland

Please note that this resource is under construction and will grow throughout 2021

What is in this resource?

Here you can listen to and read oral testimony relating to the experience of diseases such as tuberculosis, measles, mumps and polio, in Cork City and surrounds in the mid-twentieth century. The extracts are accompanied by a review of the history of the disease and vaccination in Ireland, medical commentary on specific stories, and material on and reference to the development and response to vaccination worldwide.

Click below to jump in for a taste of our content, and a listen:

Click on Browse Individual Stories to browse our oral testimony by descriptive title.

Hear about 'Getting the vaccine': The Elephant Needle, The Debutantes and The Vaccinator, Vicious Needles, A Spoonful of Sugar

Sample the voices and resonances already in our archive

How did this resource come about?

The project came about through a conversation between friends who had very different disciplinary backgrounds. One day Clíona O’Carroll, Research Director with the Cork Folklore Project was chatting with Dr. Beth Brint, an immunologist working in the Pathology Department in University College, Cork. Beth explained that one contributing factor to the return of certain infectious diseases was the fact that the memory of the effects of those diseases was fading. It is now impossible to appreciate the severe impact that communicable diseases had on individuals, families and communities in Ireland in the first half of the twentieth century. In the mid-1940s around 1000 children died every year in Ireland from diseases such as whooping cough, measles, diphtheria, polio and tuberculosis. With the success of public immunisation programmes introduced in the 1950s, deaths from these diseases dropped to zero. By the twenty-first century, the individual, family and community memory of the experience and impact of these diseases was fading. We decided to look at how these memories could be useful in terms of understanding how these diseases had an impact on individuals and whole communities, and at the same time present oral testimony alongside a commentary from Dr. Brint that explained the history of the disease in question and its vaccination in Ireland.

Is this resource complete?

No: this is a pilot version of what we hope will be a larger project.

What kind of interviews are drawn on in this resource?

To date, we have returned to our existing holdings (you can view our catalogue at http://corkfolklore.org/archivecatalolgue/welcome) to see where infectious diseases are mentioned and explored. We hope to follow up with targeted interviews that explore these themes in more depth. What is interesting, however, is that the diseases and their impact are mentioned with regularity in our interviews, and these spontaneous mentions and descriptions show the profound and sometimes devastating effect the experiences had on individuals and families. Extracts are embedded on thematic pages, but are also available with more extensive documentation, such as full transcriptions, as Item entries that can be browsed. In their 'Item' entries, the extracts are linked to the entries for the full interviews in the Cork Folklore Project Audio Catalogue, and the listener can get more background on the interview and interviewee by visiting the full interview catalogue entry. 

Who might be interested in this resource?

This resource will be of interest to anyone with an interest in social history, the history of Cork City and the history of infectious diseases (in Ireland and more generally). Medical educators will be able to use the testimony to alert doctors-in-training to the impact that such diseases had in the past, and to the power of oral testimony in communicating the experience of illness. Public health educators will find a useful resource in the linking of the oral testimony and the history of disease and vaccination. Schools will be able to access the material for teaching in social history and science. The resource is also for anyone who is interested in learning about the impact of vaccination on the health and lives of people in the twentieth century.

What about the twenty-first century?

This resource will in time include material on HPV and COVID-19. Another of the CFP's research projects, a rapid-response collection project 'Chronicles of COVID-19' can be accessed from February 2021 here: Chronicles of COVID-19.

Support and thanks

In 2019, the CFP received an Interdisciplinary Research Award from the College of Arts, Celtic Studies and Social Sciences, UCC, to carry out this pilot project.

In 2020, the project received an Irish Research Council New Foundations Award to develop the database in 2021.

This resource has been created by Beth Brint, James Furey, and Clíona O’Carroll for the Cork Folklore Project.