Research conducted in the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes revealed that two former staff members of UCD took part in unethical trial vaccine’s conducted on children in the homes.
Professor Patrick Meenan, former head of the Department of Medical Microbiology, and Dr Irene Hillery were both employed by UCD’s Department of Medical Microbiology when they took part in several vaccine trials on children in the institutions.
The Vaccine trials
Between 1960 and 1961 Patrick Meenan and Dr Irene Hillery trialled Wellcome laboratories ‘Quadrivax’, on 58 children in several children’s homes, including Bessborough, St Patrick’s Home, St Patrick’s Navan Road (Pelletstown), Dunboyne, and Castlepollard, and 10 children in industrial schools. Several infants in Bessborough fell ill after the second inoculation, but recovered and received the third inoculation with no further consequence. The British Medical Journal published the results of the trial in April 1962, Dr Hillery and Professor Meenan were named as lead investigators.
In the report, the Commission stated that “it is abundantly clear that [the trial] did not comply with the regulatory and ethical standards in place at the time”. There was no import licence for the vaccine, the researchers did not have a licence which covered research carried out in the institutions. Professor Meenan’s research license only covered research in UCD, and Dr Hillery did not have a license at all. There is no evidence that consent was properly sought or received, the report outlines that “it appears that the researchers proceeded with a vaccine trial based on a loose arrangement with the institutional medical officers who themselves may not have been fully informed about the nature of the work”, and there is no evidence of consent from the children’s mothers.
In 1964 Dr Irene Hillery conducted a trial of Wellcome Laboratories ‘Wellcovax’ measles vaccine on 12 children whole lived in Sean Ross. The Commission outlines that the trial “did not comply with the regulatory and ethical standards in place at the time”. There was no import licence in place for the vaccine, the researchers did not have a research licence which covered research carried out in the children’s institutions, there is no evidence that consent was properly sought or received and the results of the trial were not published.
In 1964 and 1965 Professor Meenan and Dr Hillery conducted a vaccine trial of Glaxo Laboratories ‘Mevilin-L’ measles vaccine. Evidence suggests it was conducted on children living in Bessborough and Pelletstown. There is little available information on this trial, therefore the Commission could not identify whether it complied with the regulatory and ethical standards, however, they stated that “it seems unlikely that it was covered by the terms of the research licence which Professor Meenan held, and “nothing is known about what consents, if any, were sought or obtained”.
In 1965, Dr Hillery conducted a trial of Glaxo Laboratories ‘Quintuple’ vaccine on children living in Bessborough and Pelletstown. The Commission stated that “it is clear that this trial did not conform to the regulatory and ethical standards in place at the time”. Dr Hillery did not hold a research licence to import vaccines, furthermore, the vaccine was not covered by Glaxo Laboratories Import Licence. There is also no evidence that Dr Hillery held a research licence to conduct such trials. There is no evidence consent was sought or received from the mothers, the authorities in the institutions, or the health authorities. One child died of cardiac and respiratory failure two weeks after receiving the first injection, however, the medical records do not suggest that this child’s death was in any way linked to the vaccine.
In 1973, Dr Hillery undertook a trial of Wellcome’s modified DTP vaccine on 53 children resident in Pelletstown and in three other residential children’s homes - Madonna House, The Cottage Home and Bird’s Nest Home, as well as another location which the Commission was not able to identify. The Commission outlined that there is no evidence that Dr Hillery or Dr Dunleavy ever had a research licence, there is no documentation to suggest that ministerial approval was sought or obtained, and there is no evidence that the mothers or the authorities in Pelletstown were asked for or gave consent.
The documentary by RTÉ, ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’ located and spoke to some of the now adults who were used in the trials. RTÉ spoke to Phillip Delaney, who received a vaccine in Bessborough. Both his birth mother and adoptive mother reported they never gave consent to the vaccine.
The Commission stated that “there is no evidence of injury to the children involved as a result of the vaccines”. However, Professor Bernard Mahon has written an open letter to The Irish Times in which he repudiates the accuracy of this statement. The Professor outlined that the vaccine carried out in Sean Ross in 1964 was later withdrawn from use in the UK in 1969 due to an “unacceptable adverse reactivity”. Mahon stated that the “salient point” in that candidate vaccine “are well known to the scientific community as having unacceptable safety profiles”. He outlined that “the lack of evidence of injury might not withstand examination that is more thorough”.
To date UCD has not issued a formal apology on the involvement of its former staff. When asked for comment on the issue, a representative for UCD said: "UCD is looking into the matter following the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes".
Leighton Gray, Campaigns and Engagement Officer for UCD Students' Union commented that “UCD’s involvement in the maltreatment of women and children demonstrates how institutions are cogs in systematic abuse”. Gray further outlined that the “university and its staff are not immune from committing atrocities, as seen by the actions of Professor Patrick Meenan and Dr Irene Hillery. These ‘trials’ show the dehumanisation of these women and children”.
Gray emphasised that “UCDSU stand with the survivors of these unethical trials”, and stressed the importance of UCD taking responsibility for its actions, “these people had their bodily autonomy and consent stripped away by UCD. UCD must take responsibility for the actions of its staff members. Every woman and baby that was subjected to these unethical trials deserves an apology from the institution that did this to them. As an institution, UCD failed to protect these women and children but what the University can do now is take responsibility and publicly apologise for the harm caused.”
If you, or someone you know, have been affected by this issue, Barnardo’s are providing support to birth mothers and adopted children at (01) 4546388 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Barnardos are also hosting a series of online support meetings for adopted adults from the 4th of March, further details can be found on their website. An online support meeting for birthmothers will take place in February, please contact the helpline if you are interested in attending.