by Lisa Murphy MMM Archivist 08.03.2022
The issuing of the Constans ac Sedula in 1936, enabled MMM Sisters to undertake pioneering medical work. Throughout the history of the Medical Missionaries of Mary, there have been many women who have devoted themselves to particular causes and one such MMM was Sister Mairead Chambers, known in her early years as Sr. M. Visitation. Sister Doctor Chambers would go on to dedicate much of her life’s work to alleviating the suffering of patients with Hansen’s disease (leprosy). Born in County Clare, Mairead entered the Medical Missionaries of Mary in 1940 after finishing school. She was one of the first MMM’s to qualify as a Doctor at University College Dublin in 1947. Her first assignment upon qualifying was to assist Doctor Joseph Barnes at the leprosy settlement in Ogoja, Nigeria. The leprosy scheme had begun just two years previous in 1945 after Bishop Thomas McGettrick enlisted the help of Dr. Barnes and the Medical Missionaries of Mary to undertake this vital work. Sister Doctor Chambers writes in the MMM Magazine that ‘Prior to 1945 there were no facilities for the treatment of the thousands of sufferers in Ogoja division’.
Sister Doctor Chambers worked in Nigeria from 1947 to 1974, spending time in both Ogoja and Abakaliki. A letter from Doctor Joseph Barnes to Mother Mary Martin in August 1949 highlights her dedication to her patients. Dr. Joseph Barnes writes ‘Sister Doctor Chambers seems to have worked herself to death to keep things going – on the day of the Ngbo clinic she would travel 120 miles and do two clinics’. Alongside their leprosy work, MMM also found the time to establish a small maternity hospital at Ogoja, which was later upgraded to a school for midwifery and numerous maternity clinics across the diocese. By the time MMM celebrated the Silver Jubilee of their foundation in 1962, Sister Doctor Mairead Chambers could report that, in the numerous segregation villages and treatment centres, she had 7,685 patients under her care. By the early 1950’s advances had been made in the treatment of Hansen’s disease with the use of Dapsone tablets and over the years thousands of patients were treated in Ogoja and many returned home symptom free. Medical advancements over the years ensured that Hansen’s Disease would become a curable condition.
Sister Doctor Chambers kept up to date with all developments in the medical field, particularly leprosy, and in 1974 she went to Amsterdam to undertake tropical studies in leprosy. At this time she was also invited to become Director of Leprosy Control Programme in Liberia, West Africa which she did until 1980. She spent a further nine years in Ganta, Liberia before returning home to Ireland. In a letter on the occasion of her leaving Ogoja in 1974, Joseph Ukpo, Bishop of Ogoja Diocese writes to Sister Doctor Chambers stating ‘The maternity hospital, Moniaya is a living testimony of your devotion to work and interest in the health of thousands of people who have had treatment in the hospital.’
Another document from the archives states ‘Her legacy was a well organised Hansen’s Disease control service. During her time in Ogoja she gave her all to the sick and suffering. The busy maternity hospital, the TB unit, the feeding centre for malnourished children, the rural clinics and maternity clinics, the midwifery school, all pay tribute to her zeal her hard work and her organising ability’.
Upon her return to Ireland she took up an interest in complimentary medicine and continued to use her skills to help many people. Sister Doctor Mairead Chambers passed away peacefully in 2001 having left a lasting legacy through her work on Hansen’s disease in Nigeria and Liberia. Her story is just one amongst the many MMM Sisters who have devoted their lives and energy to causes around the world and as we celebrate International Women’s Day this week, we remember and celebrate them all.