How a Polish doctor helped thousands of children suffering from lead poisoning

A new initiative, “Women on the walls”, showcases Polish women who contributed to significant and lasting change on a local, national or global scale. The heroine of the first mural is pediatrician Dr Jolanta Wadowska-Król.

Ada Petriczko
Ada Petriczko NewsMavens, Poland
How a Polish doctor helped thousands of children suffering from lead poisoning - NewsMavens
Dr Jolanta Wadowska-Król at the dedication ceremony, YouTube

Why this story matters:

To understand the importance of Dr Wadecka-Król’s work, we need to travel 45 years back in time. In communist Poland circa 1974, few things made the state more proud than its mining and steel industries. The propaganda media outlets were full of stories about sterling steel workers who created the wealth, prosperity and international fame of Communism. Working-class families, especially their offspring -- or should I say “the flower of the nation” -- were the priority of the party leaders.

Back then, to expose that 5,000 children living near a steelworks in Poland’s industrial hub suffer from lead poisoning was synonymous with treason.

And this is exactly what Dr Jolanta Wadecka-Król did.

Her bravery cost her a promising academic career. The discovery of lead poisoning in such a large group of patients could have made international news. But under the communist regime, her doctoral thesis was crushed and locked up in a safe of the regional officials.

Despite this, Dr Król worked incessantly to help her patients.

Thanks to her efforts, the children received appropriate treatment, while the families residing in the closest proximity of the steelworks were given new homes.

Gradually, awareness of lead poisoning grew and the regime could no longer pretend that all is swell.

The mural celebrating this modest pediatrician from a regional hospital opens the campaign “Women on the walls” which will see similar artworks emerge across Poland. Created by “Wysokie Obcasy” magazine, the motto of the series is “Women know what they’re doing”. 

Details from the story:

  • In 1974, Dr. Jolanta Wadecka-Król (born 1939) was a young pediatrician working in a regional hospital in Szopienice, the industrial suburbs of Katowice, centered around a large steelworks.
  • That year, she was approached by a senior doctor from an academic hospital, who discovered that a case of prolonged anemia in one of the boys from the neighbourhood was caused by lead poisoning. She asked Dr. Król to discretely check whether it was a solitary case or if other children in Szopienice were affected.
  • Over the following months, Dr. Król examined nearly 5,000 children. The majority of them suffered from lead poisoning, the symptoms of which include: anemia, diarrhea, vomiting, and hyperextensive joints. 13% of the children were mentally challenged.
  • In the official documentation, Dr. Król could not mention the words “lead poisoning”. Neither were the results of her extensive research published. However, she and others involved in the case managed to persuade the authorities to help the children and their families, albeit quietly,
  • The much deserved recognition of Dr. Król’s work came years later. She received an honorary citizenship of Katowice city, among many awards.
  • The mural was designed by artist Andrzej Wieteszka. Next in line are the murals celebrating legendary alpineer Wanda Rutkiewicz (in Wrocław) and the music icon Kora (in Warsaw).

Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

The information and views set out on this website are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.

NewsMavens is a media start-up within Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest liberal broadsheet published by Agora S.A. NewsMavens is currently financed by Gazeta Wyborcza and Google DNI Fund.
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