The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Report on Irish baby homes documents use of infants for med school cadavers, vaccine testing

More than 60 years ago, a fair-skinned Irish politician named Sally Mulready was born into a home for unwed mothers called St. Patrick’s. It sat on a road named Navan in Dublin, and Mulready was one of four siblings born there. Her brother John never made it out of St. Pat’s. Like hundreds of other babies born into an Irish homes for “fallen women,” John died in 1947. He was two months old.

“Inanition,” his death record read, according to RTE News. “Failure to thrive.”

But RTE News said the record carried a mystery. John for some reason wasn’t buried until 1950 — three years after his death. The oddity was first discarded as a clerical error.

But it wasn’t. John’s records had the designation “AS,” or “anatomical study.” His infant remains had in fact been given to researchers at Trinity College Dublin, who used them for medical research — though it’s unclear whether his mother had given consent for this.

Mulready eventually tracked down his burial plot, she explained to the Irish Times, but found it marked by a “stick with a number on it. … I cannot imagine that happening to children or young babies who died in … well-to-do-families, families with influence.”

But it did happen to babies beside John, according to a recent Irish government report confirming and augmenting earlier reports in an RTE investigation called “Anatomy of a Scandal.

The report, a preliminary review, was designed to set the framework for a full formal investigation ordered by the Irish parliament in the wake of another story: one historian’s claims that hundreds of babies may have been buried beside a home for unwed mothers at Tuam. The government, said the parliament as it established the inquiry, “believes that this latest shameful episode in Ireland’s painful social history must be fully and accurately documented in order that a comprehensive account of these institutions is available.”

“Records show,” the report said, “that between the years 1940-1965, 474 unclaimed infant remains were transferred to Anatomy Departments in Ireland.” It cited old records of the Anatomical Committee of the Irish Medical Schools. “The purpose was for the study of anatomy; the study of the structure of the human body.”

Some of the babies — an undetermined number — came from the homes. “Mother and Baby Homes were amongst the institutions from where such remains were transferred,” the report said, confirming earlier Irish news accounts of the medical research. Others may have come from hospitals in a “practice [that] took place up to the mid-1960’s.” The issue was broader than just the homes and “appears to have been part of a wider practice at the time regarding the use of anatomical remains,” the report said.

The report, prepared by the Irish Department of Children and Youth Affairs, found that babies’ bodies were studied by the University College Dublin, Trinity College Dublin, the Royal College of Surgeons Dublin and the National University of Ireland Galway — an act enabled by an unusual law called the “Anatomy Act” of 1832. The act “was designed to regulate schools of anatomy and provide a legal supply of cadavers for medical research and education, in reaction to public fear at the illegal trade in corpses,” the report said.

The investigation also discovered at least 123 children at the homes for unwed mothers were used for testing vaccines manufactured by a company called Wellcome Laboratories –which after merging with Glaxo, became  Glaxo Wellcome. The tests provided fodder for two published articles in peer reviewed journals, the report said. It’s unclear how often researchers obtained consent — and from whom.

The fresh findings have rekindled the scandal that absorbed international news for days last month and touched on one of the darker chapters in Ireland’s history. Unwed but pregnant women filtered through scores of similar homes and were subject to stigmatization in a society still governed by strict Catholic dogma. Tens of thousands of babies were born into the homes and many of them were later adopted.

Others, however, died in the homes, some of which had shocking levels of infant mortality. During those years in Ireland, the general infant mortality rate in the general population was 6 percent. But for so-called “illegitimate births,” the rate was much higher. According to a 1939 Annual Inspector’s Report highlighted by the government investigation, 47 percent of babies at one home in Cork died. Another had 23 percent. And the home in Tuam at the center of recent news reports had an infant mortality rate lower than the others: 15 percent.

“The chance of survival of an illegitimate infant born in the slums and placed with a foster-mother in the slums a few days after birth is greater than that of an infant born in one of our special homes for unmarried mothers,” a 1939 report unearthed by authorities said.

Many of those children experienced that fate in Tuam, which was detailed in the Irish government report. Nearly one-fourth of them died of something called “debility from birth.” Another 120 babies expired from “respiratory diseases.” Congenital syphilis claimed 12 more and seven were killed by ear infections.

It remains unclear where, exactly, the nearly 800 babies’ bodies were buried. In an interview with The Washington Post last month, the historian Catherine Corless affirmed her belief the babies are in an unmarked mass grave near the Tuam home.

The government report lent some support to that assertion. It said that police “inquiries confirm reports that skeletal remains were discovered in an underground structure near the site in mid-1970s,” adding that police are continuing their investigation.