Saturday, June 9, 2018

Great Post, Charles Pierce, Too Bad You Reached For That Old Lie To Support Your Argument

Having had been a life-long reader of the Boston Globe* I knew who Charles Pierce was long before he became nationally famous as the almost always excellent political writer for Esquire.   And I have almost always admired his work and his insights.

Someone who, apparently, has monitored this blog for past things I wrote tells me that he brought up the Tuam orphanage yesterday.   It's a shame he did because like virtually every other journalist who has brought it up, the things he cites while doing it are dodgy at best and totally crappy journalism most typically based on incompetent amateur history.   And it's a shame he did so, attaching that to the enormous ongoing national scandal of the Trump-Sessions child abuse scandal.   Which I will address after I deal with the really awful misrepresentation of the long ago issue of institutional care of children.   I do think that his other resort to finding an appalling parallel, the infamous "Magdalene laundries" is more appropriate.

The link Pierce gives in regard to the Tuam orphanage is to a typically bad  Irish CentralNews article from last year, complete with the world-wide reported lie about " how up to 800 children were allowed to die and their bodies stuffed in a septic tank by the Bon Secours sisters in Tuam, County Galway,"  which was debunked long ago.  I wrote about that at the time the "scandal" broke.

This article carries a newer accusation based on the same local amateur historian who, as I recall, tried to distance herself from the septic tank reports, claiming she never made that accusation.   But she makes another one that shows how easy it is for a combination of inadequate research and news scribblers on the make to take off when it feeds an appetite for the salacious  and scandalous with the prevailing prejudices of the allegedly educated class.

Catherine Corless tracked down death certificates for nearly 800 children. Eighteen she discovered died of starvation; yes, they were starved to death.

There was a link to the death records at the at the Tuam home, I went through them to look for evidence that children were starved to death and found that there was absolutely nothing to support that claim.

First, the definition of the term used for starvation found in the records,  marasmus has to be understood.  The dictionary definition, how it is used today is,

malnutrition occurring in infants and young children, caused by insufficient intake of calories or protein and characterized by thinness, dry skin, poor muscle development, and irritability.

But in medical language  for the period the records were made, "infantile marasmus" was a widespread cause of death and it was known to have many medical causes unrelated to actual failure to try to provide nutrition to an infant or child.  It could be caused by any number of things and could be a result of allergies, illness, a complication of other health problems in a time when infant mortality was very high and something a doctor could be expected to see often, inside and outside of an institution.   A number of medical papers were written on the topic.  This paper, by Dr. Fritz Talbot, MD,  written five years before the first of the Tuam deaths attributed to marasmus says

Severe infantile malnutrition has received many names, such as infantile atrophy, marasmus, atrophy, athrepsia and decomposition.  It does not represent a definite disease entity nor is there any clear description of exactly what the condition is.  It is found in all degrees of severity and it is often difficult to state just when it commences.  It is usually associated with symptoms of indigestion, either vomiting or diarrhea, or both, and a loss of weight.  Some infections, such as pyelitis or bronchitis often complicates the condition.  When most pronounced the infant is very much wasted, the skin hangs in folds and is of a gray pallor, the hands and feet tend to be cold, and toward the end the temperature becomes subnormal and has to be maintained by external heat.  Metabolism experiments show that the infant is frequently unable to absorb the food given him.  There is no common pathologic basis for the symptoms found in this condition.  Marriott has drawn attention to the fact that there is a decrease of blood volume coincident with the malnutrition. 

Most methods of study of this condition do not give results which explain what is going on in the body. . .  

So, that's what a doctor writing a death certificate would probably mean when he or she attributed a death to "marasmus" or starvation, most often a result of some known or unknown medical condition.   And when you look at the records you find that all of the deaths with that attribution at the Tuam home were of infants, in some cases with indications of a known underlying condition that caused it.  Here from the spreadsheet of all of the deaths at the Tuam home linked to by the article.

January 5, 1926, 
Anthony Cooke,  1 month, convulsions (7 days) Marasmus

June 5, 1926
Patricia Dunne, 2 months  Measles (9 days)  Marasmus

August 26 1926
Peter McNamara 7 weeks Congenital malformation of colon Marasmus

September 1, 1926.   
Mary Murphy 2 months pneumonia (3 days)  Marsmus Pneumonia

December 27, 1929
Patrick Kelly 2 1/2 months Marasmus from Birth

I will note this phrase "marasmus from birth" could mean the doctor concluded there was some congenital condition that caused the baby to be unable to get adequate nutrition but used the general term which a person, now, would read and conclude the baby was intentionally or negligently starved to death.

May 7, 1932, 
Patricia Judge 1 year,  Marsmus certified 

June 5, 1933
Mary Fiona Cunniffe  6 months, Marsmus 3 months, Certified

August 22, 1933
John Kilmartin 2 months, Marsmus 2 months Whooping cough, cardiac failure

September 9, 1933,  2 months Marsmus.  Asthema.  Cardiac failure, Certified 

September 28,  1933
Mary Brennan, 4 months  Marasmus 3 months, Certified

May 3, 1937
John Patrick Loftus  10 months,  Marasmus, Certified

January 23, 1937
Margaret Linnane 3 1/2 months Marasmus certified

January 1, 1938
Teresa Heneghan 3 months,  Marasmus, certified 

June 6, 1947
Bridget Agatha Kenny 2 months  Mental defective, Marasmus, Certified 

It's possible I missed some of the "18 deaths by starvation" claimed by Ms. Corless but I did read through all of the stated causes of death and found these fourteen.

If there were something like routine starvation of children - such as in the infamous Canadian "butter box" babies scandal -  in an institution as large as that at Tuam,  I'd imagine you would expect to see such deaths listed, not in isolation, but in blocks, such as those where childhood illnesses swept through the institution, whooping cough, measles, chicken pox.  There are no such blocks of deaths close in time.  And to attribute any blame for such negligence, you would need more information than the death certificates provide, such as how long the children were in the institution before they died.  It would also be necessary to know to what extent the institution might have acted as a hospital of last resort.  I don't know that and I haven't seen any kind of analysis that took a full picture into account.

When I looked into this, when the "scandal" first broke I asked a question that I didn't see any journalist consider, whether the percentage of children who died in the Tuam home was unusual for institutions of the time or, in fact, if those numbers were high for the general, uninstitutionalized population in the care of their parents.  I concluded the numbers, especially in the period before modern antibiotics were known, were not unusually high.   If you look at the other deaths at Tuam, they read like a list of common reasons young children died at the time.

The Irish Central article starts with an inflammatory quote from Doctor Ella Webb in the Irish Times of June 1924

 “A great many people are always asking what is the good of keeping these children alive? I quite agree that it would be a great deal kinder to strangle these children at birth than to put them out to nurse.”  speaking about illegitimate children in care in Ireland at the time.

The use of the quote is deceptive and dishonest as it doesn't identify who the "great many people" who were asking that question were.  It doesn't sound like contemporary Catholic rhetoric, though it is typical of the secular, especially Darwinist point of view* of the time.  I strongly suspect that, despite what the clip said, it misrepresented Dr. Webb's point of view, from the little I've read about her this morning.  This description of her seems to be the common consensus of her real character:

It has been argued that St Ultan’s Hospital, established in 1919 served the same functions.  However, it appears that the main women doctors involved in its foundation, such as Kathleen Lynn, Katharine Maguire and Ella Webb (née Ovenden) were concerned primarily with improving the health and sanitary conditions of Dublin’s poor, as was evident from their earlier involvement in organisations such as the Women’s National Health Association, rather than the promotion of the professional interests of women doctors.

And this:

Webb is also reputed to have appointed the first Medical Social Worker (or Almoner as they were then known) in Ireland. She had made a request in 1919 at a meeting of the Red Cross Society in Dublin for a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) to help in the dispensary for sick children that she had established in the Adelaide Hospital in Dublin the previous year. Miss Winifred Alcock, who had been training as an Almoner in London, responded to the request and started voluntary work with Dr Webb. After three years Miss Alcock put in a request for a full time salaried assistant  resulting in the appointment of Miss Olive Crawford as the first qualified almoner. This was the beginning of social work in the Irish hospital system.  

Dr. Webb studied mortality among children in Dublin under one year old, which was abnormally high in 1915  and did pioneering work in preventative medicine with children.  She became famous for prescribing a teaspoonful of Guinness for infants recovering from gastroenteritis.  She was also the founder of the Children's Sunshine Home in Stillorgan, Dublin which was originally a convalescent home for children suffering from rickets in the early 1920s.

I will admit that when I saw the name "Webb" I associated it with the enemies of the poor, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, it's something I have no problem imagining might be said at one of their meetings - read the literature of the Fabian Society for confirmation of that - especially such stuff as Karl Pearson wrote and George Bernard Shaw said in Fabian literature.   But Dr. Webb doesn't appear to have conducted her career in that manner.

Understanding history isn't as easy as the amateur historian who became famous through this "scandal" and, obviously, even fine, not to mention crap journalists would take it to be.  You have to look at the meanings of words for the time they were used, you have to look at things like what children commonly died of and try to understand what it all means instead of looking for support for your preferred prejudices.  But that's the typical use of history instead of using it to understand reality.  And once a lie like the "babies in the septic tank" are spread, they take on a false sense of fact when they are, in fact, lies. 

Anger and outrage, all too easily ginned up, is no substitute for looking behind the articles.

*  I don't see any deaths attributed to small pox in the data of the death records.  No doubt that was due to vaccination, something that many a Darwinist, including Charles and his son Leonard said shouldn't be done because it kept too many poor children alive who would have otherwise died of it.  I wonder who was vaccinating Irish children and others which might have resulted in the absence of such deaths.

No comments:

Post a Comment