True grit – Brian Maye on pioneering paediatrician and disability campaigner Barbara Stokes

“We rushed in where many would fear to venture”

Barbara Stokes, paediatrician and disability campaigner, who was born 100 years ago on December 20th, had her interest in medicine stimulated by an uncle who specialised in researching yellow fever and wrote to his young niece about his work in remote west Africa. But with illustrious medical ancestors such as great-grandfather Whitley Stokes and great-uncle William Stokes, that she followed that particular career is hardly surprising.

She was born and spent her first 16 years in London, with frequent summer holidays in Ireland, and when her Irish-born father retired from the British Army Ordnance Corps, the family moved back to Dublin and settled in Howth. Graduating in medicine from Trinity College in 1945, she trained as house physician at the Meath Hospital. She married Dr Roderick O’Hanlon, an obstetrician, the following year. Her initial intention was to specialise in epidemiology but all positions in that discipline were in the public service and not open to married women at that time.

Instead, she chose paediatrics and trained at the National Children’s Hospital, Harcourt Street. Turlough O’Riordan, who wrote the entry on her in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, said that from the beginning, she was “strongly motivated to overcome the older generation’s failure to address adequately the needs of those with congenital physical and intellectual disabilities”. She practised in St Ultan’s Hospital for Infants and the Royal City of Dublin Hospital, Baggot Street, and also developed a private practice specialising in neo-natal work.

She fundraised for and was a lifelong supporter of Liberty Creche that catered for the working women of the Liberties and called for regulation of nursery schools and creches. When Patricia Farrell and Madge Atock established the Association of Parents and Friends of Mentally Handicapped Children, Stokes volunteered to be part-time medical director and eventually managed what developed into St Michael’s House. “Providing medical assessment and advisory services to the parents of children with learning and physical disabilities, she was the principal public face of the organisation,” according to Turlough O’Riordan.


“We rushed in where many would fear to venture. The one essential was to meet and help parents who came to us, not so much for a diagnosis, but for advice about what they should or could do to help their child with a disability,” was how she herself explained what they were trying to achieve.

A special-care unit for children with severe disabilities was set up in Ballymun in 1967 and the first clinic of St Michael’s House was opened in Goatstown in 1968, with a multidisciplinary team of medics, social workers and educationists. Stokes opposed the use of large institutions, while accepting that residential care was sometimes needed, but she preferred community-centred services. She also stressed the importance of the family setting when assessing the needs of each child and wanted parents and siblings closely involved. She contributed significantly to the 1972 Report of the Study Group on Children’s Hospital Services, always emphasising the importance of integrating young disabled people into their local communities.

Her fundraising work, carried out with Declan Costello and other public figures, was unstinting and she was “unapologetically combative” (Turlough O’Riordan) pursuing government funding. By 1975, St Michael’s House had more than 200 staff and was largely State funded. Stokes also strove to develop Cheeverstown House, a planned village in Templeogue, on which St Michael’s House and the Eastern Health Board worked together. She was given a People of the Year award in 1981 and the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Leadership Award in 1990.

Stokes remained a consultant paediatrician to Baggot Street, St Ultan’s and Mercer’s hospitals until retiring from St Michael’s House in 1987. In addition, she was a governor, patron, member and fellow of many organisations, boards, associations and councils. “Brave, creative and innovative, she was a skilled doctor, manager and campaigner (especially in recruiting and supporting staff) and a noted mentor of younger colleagues and researchers, all harnessed towards supporting children to achieve their potential – her professional mantra being ‘every damn child can learn’,” is Turlough O’Riordan’s assessment.

She very much enjoyed gardening and was a member of the Irish Georgian Society. In her early years in Howth, she sailed with her sisters and this was a pastime she continued to enjoy with her husband. They had three boys, two of whom predeceased her. She endured multiple sclerosis for 35 years and her final years, spent in Leeson Street Nursing Home, were marred somewhat by a stroke but she remained as clear and alert as ever on medical matters. She died on March 22nd, 2009.