Why isn’t William C Campbell more famous in Ireland?

There have been only two Irish winners of Nobel Prizes other than Literature and Peace – Dungarvan-born Ernest Walton for physics in 1951 and Ramelton-born William C Campbell for Physiology or Medicine in 2015.

My memory of being in school in the 1990s was that Ernest Walton loomed fairly large in science popularisation at the time. I recall quite vividly coverage of his death in 1995, but also recall his being quoted and profiled fairly extensively. Of course, I could be a victim of a recall bias – I probably am. Yet it does seem that William C Campbell has not had nearly as much coverage, especially when you consider how media-saturated we are now.

Or perhaps that is the whole point. It feels like a silly comparison, but is may be like the Eurovision; once we cared deeply about winning this competition and getting recognition, now there is a flurry of excitement if we get to the final. Having said that, it isn’t like we have had any other science Nobels to get excited about since 1995.

Of course there is a reasonable amount of coverage of Campbell, in the Irish Times in particular some of it quite recent. A fair percentage of online coverage seems to be from the Donegal papers of the hail-the-local-hero variety, which is fair enough.

A search for ‘William Campbell “Irish Independent”‘ starts with two articles from the Independent on Campbell, then has this , then a range of articles about unrelated topics.

I came across this excellent piece on “the fragile culture of Irish journalism” by Declan Fahy – the fragility exemplified by the coverage of Campbell’s prize:

The reporting of Campbell’s Nobel win illuminated several more general features of Irish media coverage of science. The story originated outside Ireland, yet its local dimension was stressed. Its tone was celebratory. It was not covered by specialist science journalists. Only The Irish Times probed deeper into the background of the scientist and his work.

The story was interesting also because of the aspects of Campbell’s story that were not developed. Reporters did not use the announcement as a jumping-off point to explore some of the novel dimensions of Campbell’s story, such as the rights and wrongs of pharmaceutical companies’ ownership of drugs that could help millions of the world’s poorest people, the unseen research work of an industry-based scientist, and the complex case of a scientist of faith with an admitted “complicated sense of religion”.

The superficial reporting of the Campbell story is not an isolated case. It reflects more generally the state of Irish science journalism, where there are few dedicated science journalists, a shortfall of science coverage compared to other countries, a neglect of science policy coverage, a reliance on one outlet for sustained coverage, a dependence on subsidies for the production of some forms of journalistic content, and a dominant style of reporting that lacks a critical edge.

(in passing, Walton was also a scientist of faith, although perhaps with less “complicated sense of religion” than Campbell)

Fahy goes on, in what is a an extract from a book co-edited by Fahy, “Little Country, Big Talk” to enumerate some fo the issues both within the structure of media institutions and within Irish society and culture overall which contribute to this relative neglect. While there is an Irish Science and Technology Journalists Association, there is not a critical mass of science journalists. Writing in 2017, Fahy observes:

Compared to the US and UK, Ireland has a far less developed culture of science journalism. There are currently no full-time science journalists in mainstream Irish newspapers and broadcasters. The Irish Times had a dedicated science editor in Dick Ahlstrom, who has now retired (and, during his tenure, he had other significant editorial duties at the news organisation).

The Irish Times also had a longtime environmental correspondent, Frank McDonald, who retired in recent years. Earlier this year, former editor Kevin O’Sullivan combined these two roles, becoming environment and science editor. The paper also has a health correspondent and a specialist medical writer. The Irish Independent has an environment editor, Paul Melia.

The public service broadcaster, RTÉ, has had specialists in science or technology, but its correspondents have usually had dual briefs, reporting on education or health as well as science, and tending to cover education or health more so than science. That tendency, identified by Brian Trench in 2007’s Mapping Irish Media, has continued. In 2016, the incumbent in the role is responsible for science and technology, and tends to cover technology more than science.

Fahy also discusses the wider place of science in Irish culture and society. There are many many fascinating stories to tell about science in Ireland, such as Erwin Schrodinger’s time here (perhaps illustrative of Fahy’s point is that the very first Google result for “Schrodinger in Ireland” is this) and the many many stories collected by Mary Mulvihill in Ingenious Ireland. As I have just posted on Seamus Sweeney, I only learnt while researching this post that Mary Mulvihill died in 2015.

Of course, some of these stories can be told with a celebratory, or I-can’t-believe-this-happened-in-little-auld-Ireland focus, which again illustrates Fahy’s point. My own perception is that in 1995 the situation was actually a little better than it is now – that Irish science journalism is not in stasis but actually in reverse .

One striking point made by Fahy is that the science beat is often combined with health or technology- and these tend to win out in terms of focus. And the hard , critical questions don’t tend to get asked – often there is a strong bang of barely rewritten press release about articles on science topics.

Another thought – the retirement of Dick Ahlstrom and death of Mary Mulvihill alone robbed the already small pool of Irish science writers of some of the finest practitioners. Irish journalism – like Irish anything- is pretty much a small world and a couple of such losses can have a huge impact.

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Collective trauma and long term health impacts

On my other blog I have written about The Glamour of the West, an obscure book from 1928. One passage in this collection of episodic sketches deals with something I have have wondered about myself – the ultra long terms effects of collective trauma on the psyche. Of course, much tendentious stuff along these lines has been written, but I wonder about serious study of the topic:

Here’s the passage from Kelleher:

In the year 1928, when this book is being put together, there are many thousands of living Irish people whose parents were born in or about the Famine times. No wonder, here and there, if a melancholia should appear in the Irish. A generation born around the famine year could not escape the famine complex. In the west especially, life turned black with the black blighted potato. Social historians discuss the incidence of hysteria, and worse, due to the Zeppelin nights in London. The long duresse of the famine of 1847 was deeper shock to the whole population than any number of night-raids. Death might ensue from a bomb, but despair and death both were surer in Ireland. In Mayo the tragedy was at its height. At Westport workhouse, built to hold one thousand inmates, three thousand clamoured for entrance sometimes in a single day. Yet the pride of the Irish poor if well known; they will only enter the poorhouse when ruined and hopeless. The gate of the workhouse would be closed and barred early. Then the desperate, weak, lonely, agonised outcasts would throw themselves down to rest and snatch a sleep at the foot of the wall on the opposite side of the road. As many as seven corpses were found one morning like that, dead where they lay.

Here it is in the original (blurry photo and all) :

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Tory island doctoring

A while back I featured Elizabeth Shane’s poem  “The Doctor” with its heroic depiction of a doctor bravely taking to the waves to bring succor to a Tory Islander. From Jim Hunter’s “The Waves Of Tory / Tonnta Thoraí“, a rather less flattering portrayal:

 

“For long period in Tory’s history there was not even a nurse on the island. In an emergency a boat would have to go to mainland to fetch a doctor. Many doctors refused to venture across the seas to Tory and often quoted an exaggerated fee to make their services prohibitive to the island community. One doctor demanded a a fee of £2 in advance before travelling to Tory; after he had performed his duties the islanders refused to take him back until he had paid £5 for the return boat trip. More frequently doctors required sick persons to travel to the mainland for attention. Such trips, often in raging seas, did little to improve the condition of patients.”

Hunter describes a more positive experience of nursing:

“Island nurses were held in greater esteem by the islanders. A whole series of Public Health nurses such as Nurse McVeagh, Nurse Savage and Nurse Rodgers are remembered with great affection. Nurse McVeagh, who served on the island from 1936 to 1953, seems to have placed more emphasis on local cures and remedies than on orthodox medication. She would arrive for the delivery of a child with a black bag in which she carried a pair of shoes and a pair of rubber gloves; the gloves were placed aside, but the shoes were thrown under the bed for luck.”

Hunter later informs us (the book was published in 2006):

“A helicopter service now brings a doctor from Falcarragh at regular intervals to check on the health of the islanders. The helicopter service can also be called in an emergency to bring a doctor to the island or transport a sick person to hospital. The islanders are conscious of their dependence on the good medical services provied by the Letterkenny Hospital, and they have been most generous in raising funds for the purchase of medical equipment. It is not unknown for cheques amounting to £10,000 to be handed over the medical authorities by the Tory community.”

“The Doctor” – Elizabeth Shane

Elizabeth Shane (1877-1951) was a Belfast-born poet who lived most of her life in Donegal. “Tales of the Donegal Coast and Islands” is a volume of poetry initially published in 1921, though this edition is a 1927 reprint.

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Shane contributes a foreword:

These little tales of the west coast and islands of Donegal were begun without any idea of publication. They were simply written for my own and my ‘Mate’s’ pleasure, record of happy days in the place we love best, and of the simple everyday doings of a warm-hearted people among whom we count many friends.
Dialect in verse is apt to become burdensome; I have therefore not attempted to do more than suggest the speech of the district by occasional spelling, and by a characteristic turn of the sentences. The brogue is somewhat elusive, and much slighter than that which one hears further south.

I am inclined to wish Shane took her own strictures about dialect in verse being “apt to become burdensome” a little more to heart. Orwell wrote that Kipling’s verse is much improved by being read without the various dropped aitches and “an'”s and “th'”s that characterise him.

It would be curious to know how much the island doctor has changed – aside from being brought in by helicopter of course.

 

The Doctor

 

The doctor’s called to Tory now

An’ his boat is at the pier.

Och! his is not an aisy job

At any time o’year

For he’d need be half a sailor-man

That would be doctor here.

 

There’s many a day he’ll be to start

An’ face a winter gale,

An’ himself would make no fuss at all,

But tell the boys to sail;

Wi’ the thought o’ one in pain beyond,

He’s not the man to fail.

 

There’s Neal down workin’ at the boat,

And the rest is with him too,

‘Tis the four o’ them do always go

To make the doctor’s crew;

For ’tis Tory is long miles away,

An’ no less o’ them would do.

 

‘Have ye tackle there?’ the doctor sez,

‘For the mackerel’s in,’ sez he:

‘We can trawl a bit as we go for luck.

Sure, we might get two or three’

But sez Neal, ‘The speed’ll be rayther much

Wi’ this wind in the open sea.’

 

Sez the doctor, ‘Tis a soldier’s wind,

We’ll be home ere night,’ he cried,

So they’re slippin’ from the harbour now

Down channel wi’ the tide,

An’ the swell is aisy on the bar

Though the wind is fresh outside.

 

‘Tis lonesome out on the wide, grey sea,

An’ the boat she does be small,

Yet where sickness is, be it calm or storm,

They will answer to the call.

Och! there’s brave things done an’ little said

On the shores o’ Donegal.

Here is a rather badly taken image of the poem as originally set:

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