An unusual cluster of babies with Down’s syndrome born to former pupils of an Irish boarding school
Clustering in time and space of cases of Down’s syndrome has attracted
attention. Collmann and Stoller suggested an infective cause.’
We report an unusual cluster of babies with Down’s syndrome born
to six young mothers whose only common feature was that they
attended school together in Dundalk, an eastern coastal town in the
Republic of Ireland, during the 1950s. An outbreak of illness similar
to influenza occurred in the school in October 1957.
Patients, methods, and results
A child with Down’s syndrome was examined by one of us in 1974, and
the mother mentioned that babies with Down’s syndrome had also been
born to some of her school friends. All 213 pupils who had attended the
school in the 1950s were contacted, and details of their obstetric and other
personal histories were sought. This revealed that six babies with Down’s
syndrome had been born to six former pupils (table). Because of the influenza
epidemic in 1957 sera from the six mothers of babies with Down’s
syndrome and from 128 controls, who included 55 other former pupils of
the “affected” school, were tested for influenza and other possible teratogenic
The sera from all 134 mothers were examined for antibody titres to
several influenza strains and also to rubella, cytomegalovirus, hepatitis B,
and to the protozoan Toxoplasma gondii. None of the results was significant.
Karyotyping of the six babies with Down’s syndrome showed that all were
simple trisomy 21. In each case both the parents had normal chromosomes.
All have since had only normal children in a total of 26 pregnancies (table).
Fetal wastage was compared in all groups but results showed no statistical
In the control group one baby with Down’s syndrome was born as a
result of a fifth pregnancy to a 40 year old mother from another school.
Two controls had also spent their teens in Dundalk though not at the same
school. None of the 134 used contraceptives, fertility pills, or drugs. None
of the six mothers of babies with Down’s syndrome smoked. Only one had
been exposed to x rays during pregnancy and she had had a single dental
x ray examination.
The number of affected children was far too high to be the result
of chance alone. The incidence of six babies with Down’s syndrome
in a total of 26 pregnancies (table) is significantly higher than the
accepted overall incidence of one in 600.
Trisomic clustering in space and time has been reported many
times.2 This unique cluster is related to neither space nor time; the
babies were born in different locations. The only common factor is
that their mothers lived in close association during their teenage
years and had an illness similar to influenza in October 1957.
Another possible time related causative factor was the nuclear
accident at Windscale 10 October 1957. Irish meteorological reports
are consistent with radioactive fallout having reached Ireland at a
time of heavy rainfall in the Dundalk area. Radioactive iodine (“3’1)
and Polonium 210 are transmitted via cows’ milk and the food chain.3
Milk supplies were not monitored for radioactivity in Ireland at that
time so no figures are available. We suggest that the levels of exposure
to radiation in Dundalk were probably similar to those of the average
population in southern England. Estimates of dosage are well below
those that would be expected to give rise to demonstrable consequences
unless perhaps some other unknown interacting factor, such
as a virus infection, had been present.
An increased incidence of Down’s syndrome along the east coast
of Ireland with a peak in 1974 has been reported.4 There has also been
an increase in the number of deaths from leukaemia and cancer
along the east coast.
What happened to these young women when they were teenagers
in school together? We are left with the nagging doubt that possible
exposure to radiation associated with some infection had an adverse
influence on the subsequent non-disjunction of chromosome 21 in
their six babies.
We thank the staff of the Meteorological Office and Dr Eric Feeney,
principal physicist, St Luke’s Hospital, Dublin, for their help, and Mrs S
Duffy for typing the manuscript.
Collmann RD, Stoller A. Notes on the epidemiology of mongolism in
Victoria, Australia from 1942 to 1957. Proceedings of the Conference
on Science and Mental Deficiency 1962;1 :517.
2 Paneth N, Lansky M, Hiatt IM, Hegyi T. Congenital malformation
clusters in eastern United States. Lancet 1980;ii :808.
3 Urguhart J. Polonium: Windscale’s most lethal legacy. New Scientist
1983; March 31:873.
4 Coffey VP, Hillery MB. A review of Down syndrome in the Eastern
Health Board region of Ireland-1979 and 1980. Ir Med 7 1982;75:
(Accepted 20 July 1983)
BRITISH MEDICAL JOURNAL VOLUME 287 12 NOVEMBER 1983
Of course, the British Government and Nuclear Authorities may very well disagree.
However both of these are considered Perpetual Legal Entities incapable of Becoming Pregnant.
Other scientific reports either agree or disagree with various positions and conclusions
reported in England as a consequence of the Windscale graphite core reactor disaster of 1957.
A lay Australian once proposed the whole thing was Karma, seeing as how the joint made the
plutonium which was made from Australian uranium which was then used in nuclear weapons which were detonated in and over Australia. I don’t know about that and refer to higher authorities.