Ada English: the forgotten fighter
Atlanta, GA, United States
|Photograph of Irish Politician Ada English. Via Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 4.0.|
A reformer of psychiatric care, a fighter for Irish independence, and a forgotten figure in Irish history—that was Dr. Adeline (Ada) English. As a female physician working in Ireland from the beginning to the middle of the 1900s, English faced obstacles because of both her sex and her politics. However, she never faltered in her life’s work of caring for those with mental illness.
Born January 10, 1875, in Cahersiveen, County Kerry, Ireland, to a Roman Catholic family with firm Irish nationalist views, English was to hold the family’s values near to her heart throughout her lifetime. Her father worked as an apothecary, and she followed in his medical footsteps, walking even farther to become a pioneering psychiatrist. She attended Catholic institutions for both her secondary schooling (Loreto Convent in Mullingar) and her early medical schooling (Catholic University of Medicine) and was one of the first female graduates of the medical school at the Royal University in Dublin (in 1903). She also lived her entire life as a political and social activist, serving as a senior member of Cumann na mBan (The Irishwomen’s Council), an Irish women’s paramilitary organization, and as a Sinn Féin (Democratic socialist party in Ireland) representative for the Second Dáil (Second Assembly).
Coming of age during a tumultuous time in Ireland’s history, English saw firsthand the effects of poverty and conflict on the Irish people. She lived through the Land War (1879-1882), a conflict between English landlords and Irish tenants over land rights; the Irish Famine (1845-1851), with the seven-year ramifications of the failure of the potato crop caused by the spread of Phytophthora infestans; Home Rule (1870-1918), a political movement for self-government for Ireland; and Easter Rising (April 1916), an armed insurrection to establish Irish independence from British rule. As a child, English was influenced by these events; as an adult, she participated in them.
Growing up during the Land War, English became aware of the strife and violence rampant in her county through the work of her grandfather, Richard, as a master of the Oldcastle Workhouse, which housed Irish paupers, and as a result of the increasing unrest due to the Irish Potato Famine. As she came into adulthood, English transformed this knowledge into action, fighting all her life for Irish independence. She was even jailed in 1921 in Galway for possessing nationalist literature. While in jail, she was elected as a Teachta Dála (member of Irish parliament) in the Second Dáil. She served only part of her nine-month jail sentence because she contracted ptomaine poisoning.
For English, her sociopolitical fight for Irish independence was interwoven with her daily personal fight for patients with mental illness to lead safe, productive lives. She spent the majority of her career working at Ballinasloe District Asylum in County Galway, Ireland (renamed St. Brigid’s Hospital in 1960). At the asylum, she helped to pioneer medical and physical treatments for her patients. Notably, Ballinasloe was the first mental hospital in Ireland to use electroconvulsive therapy. Although commonly misunderstood, ECT is still credited as “the single most effective therapy for treatment-resistant cases of depression and some cases of bipolar affective disorder and schizophrenia.”1
English was also a firm believer in the benefits of physical activity for patients with mental illness. At the asylum, patients worked planting gardens, making fences, sewing, and crocheting. English encouraged sports, including football, tennis, track, hockey, and camogie (an Irish stick-and-ball game), and artistic endeavors, even helping to create a hospital drama group.
As one of the first women in the field of psychiatry, English worked hard to defend her worth and abilities. When John Broughton Mills stepped down as the resident medical superintendent of Ballinasloe in 1936, English was nominated to take his place. However, the Local Appointments Commissioners gave the position to Dr. Bernard Lyons instead, even though English was more qualified because of her fluency in both the English and Irish languages and her thirty-two-year employment at the asylum. According to one member of the Committee of Management at Ballinasloe:
We all regret very much that we were not able to press our recommendation of Dr English to success. One thing I resent very much is the statement of Deputy McDermott of Roscommon in the Dáil. Deputy McDermott suggested that we were out to take the candidate by the throat and take his position for Dr English. He is wrong. Dr English never relied on her national record, outstanding as it is. She relied on long and valued service and experience. She conducted the duties entrusted to her with credit to herself and to the institution. I regret that we had Galway deputies in the Dáil and that they allowed Deputy McDermott of Roscommon to refer to Dr English as Salome demanding the head of Mr McCarron from Herod de Valera.2(p70)
The working relationship between Lyons and English was fraught with tension and controversy. Lyons maligned the previous managers and employees of Ballinasloe to the psychiatric community and the press. English called for a formal inquiry into the situation:
Dr Lyons made the most sweeping allegations. ‘The doctors here do the very minimum amount of work.’ ‘If they are wanted, you have to send for them.’ ‘If I went around the hospital a hundred times a month, I would never see one of them on duty,’ and again ‘I say that the doctors are doing the very minimum work.’ Later on there was a reference to your [the Inspector’s] visit here and to the question as to whether I should have had three calendar months[’] leave last year. Dr Lyons’s comment on this was: ‘You told the Inspector that you got three calendar months. The letter from the Department was produced and it put the lie down your throat’.… As you were there, sir, you yourself can judge the appropriateness of this remark. You can see, Mr Inspector, from these extracts that the position is intolerable, and, in order to avoid seeking other measures to protect myself, I am bringing the matter before you and the Department and request that some action be taken to prevent the continuation of this conduct. I would welcome, if it should be necessary, a sworn Inquiry into the manner in which I have discharged my duties. Obviously, if Dr Lyons is right, I should be dismissed and if he is wrong I should at least be vindicated. I may mention that I asked Dr Lyons, before the meeting, to settle the matter between ourselves but he refused. Furthermore, I asked him the following day would he apologise before I would have to take further steps in the matter, and he again refused.2(pp74-75)
In 1940, a sworn inquiry into the management of the mental hospital was held by the Committee of Management of Ballinasloe Mental Hospital. After days of testimony, the committee appointed a commissioner, Dr. Joseph Kearney, to take charge of the inquiry. After several months, the commissioner found the following:
Dr Lyons cannot be further trusted with the responsible duties of Resident Medical Superintendent. A reduction in rank should be considered forthwith” and that “Dr English, Assistant Medical Officer, in her evidence at the inquiry, took exception to a report made by the Resident Medical Superintendent to the Joint Committee to the effect that the Assistant Medical Officers did the minimum amount of work. She also felt aggrieved by a statement made by the Resident Medical Superintendent, at a meeting of the Committee, which reflected upon her veracity. The Resident Medical Superintendent agreed at the inquiry to express regret and withdraw the statement. The Minister is satisfied that Dr English has discharged her duties efficiently.2 (p79)
Dr. Lyons was then moved to the position of medical officer at Castlerea Branch Mental Asylum, and Dr. English was appointed acting resident medical superintendent.
It had taken thirty-seven years, but Dr. English was finally rightfully acknowledged for her lifetime of dedication to the Ballinasloe Mental Hospital. She held the position of resident medical superintendent for only fourteen months, when she retired in 1943.
The following year, on January 27, 1944, she died at Mount Pleasant Nursing Home in Ballinasloe. Fittingly, she was buried close to some of her former patients in Creagh Cemetery, next to the Ballinasloe Mental Hospital. Unfortunately, she did not live long enough to see Ireland leave the British Commonwealth and become its own republic in 1949.
In the years that followed English’s death, her contributions to medicine and Irish politics seemed to fade into the ephemera of history. According to her biographer Brendan Kelly, “She died without leaving a diary, letters or a will. Her belonging were publicly auctioned. And so, for seven decades, Ada English vanished from Irish history.”3 But as we begin to reconsider the often-overlooked contributions of women in the field of medicine, Ada English is a woman worth remembering.
- Ruffalo ML. A brief history of electroconvulsive therapy: the story of a misunderstood but effective treatment. November 3, 2018. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/freud-fluoxetine/201811/brief-history-electroconvulsive-therapy.
- Kelly B. Ada English: Patriot and Psychiatrist. Irish Academic Press; 2014.
- Kelly B. The lady vanishes: Dr Ada English, patriot and psychiatrist. October 13, 2014. https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/the-lady-vanishes-dr-ada-english-patriot-and-psychiatrist-1.1960835.
LAURA KING is a full-time freelance medical writer and editor. She previously served as the director of copyediting for JAMA and continues to edit for the JAMA Network journals. She currently teaches in the Medical Writing and Editing Program at the University of Chicago Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies. Her articles have appeared in the Journal of Public Health and Emergency, Clinical Cancer Research, Journal of Urology, Journal of Clinical Oncology, Urology, Science Editor, and JAMA.
Winter 2021 | Sections | Psychiatry & Psychology