Russell, Matthew John (1874–1956), physician, was born 1 June 1874 in Kilross, Co. Tipperary, the son of John Russell, farmer, and his wife, Kate (née Dwyer). He had at least one brother, James, and one sister, Mary, both of whom joined religious orders. Matthew studied medicine at Queen's College, Cork (latterly UCC), and the Royal College of Surgeons, Dublin, obtaining a licentiate membership of the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland (RCSI) and the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland in 1898. He then took his licentiate of midwifery at the Rotunda Hospital (1899) and was made a fellow of the RCSI (1902). Specialising in public health medicine, he obtained a diploma in public health (1907) and was later appointed assistant to Sir Charles Cameron (qv), the medical officer of health (MOH) to Dublin corporation (1911). In 1921 he succeeded Cameron, becoming the first full time MOH in the new state. He remained in this position until his retirement in 1947.
Russell's early years as a dispensary doctor in the Kilmainham area of Dublin gave him a deep understanding of, and sympathy with, the additional difficulties brought on by illness in families in already straitened circumstances. This personal interest in public welfare and the housing of the poor in the city remained with him throughout his life. Bad housing and shocking sanitary conditions were the underlying cause of the high fatalities from infectious diseases in the city. Russell's persistent advocacy of the provision of proper housing for the poor of Dublin during the 1920s encouraged the building of blocks of new flats and housing estates in the city and its surroundings. He was vigilant over the city's food and water supply. Regulations for the hygienic handling of meat were introduced and abattoirs were upgraded. The production, storage, and distribution of milk were questioned, and one of the first tubercular-free cattle herds was established at the sanatorium at Crooksling, Co. Dublin. In 1925, at the invitation of the Rockefeller Foundation, Russell visited all the public health centres in the USA, where preventative medicine and better housing were leading the way in public heath care. He returned more committed than ever, and advised on the establishment of school meals, child welfare, and school health services in the city.
Deeply concerned at high levels of infant mortality from measles, diphtheria, and tuberculosis, Russell was one of the earliest advocates of preventative immunisation against diphtheria and was responsible for the introduction of immunisation of children at welfare centres and schools. Within ten years the infant mortality rate almost halved. During that time his actions as port medical officer also saved Dublin from the spread of a serious outbreak of smallpox then prevalent in England and Wales. In addition he is remembered for his work in eliminating typhus. During the 1930s and 1940s the incidence of typhus was reduced to very low levels, while a century previously 40,000 cases of the disease had been reported in one year in Dublin alone. Outside of his work as MOH, Russell was a governor of both Dr Steevens’ and St Ultan's hospitals in Dublin and a member of the first central council of the Irish Red Cross Society (1939).
Actively involved with the nationalist movement, Russell was a committee member of the Irish National Aid Association (1916), founded to help the families of those killed during the Easter rising, and he became a judge in the Sinn Féin courts (1919–20). Affectionately known to Dublin citizens as Dr ‘Matt’ Russell, he was a modest man whose shyness was often mistaken for aloofness. He married, on 31 July 1924, Angela Russell (qv) (née Coyne), also a medical doctor, and they lived at 85 Pembroke Road, Ballsbridge. They had a daughter (who died in her twenties) and two sons, John Russell, a Jesuit priest, and Matthew Russell, a barrister and senior civil servant. Russell died 10 February 1956 in a Dublin nursing home.