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Medical marvels of Ireland: Duelling doctors to bravery during Great War

The history of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland includes duelling doctors, bravery on the battlefield during the Great War... and the dissection of a dead elephant. Alf McCreary explored all this - and more - for his new book

Published 02/12/2015

Dr Robbie Smyth (circled) had been an Irish rugby international but died in 1916 aged 36 after being gassed in the trenches
Dr Robbie Smyth (circled) had been an Irish rugby international but died in 1916 aged 36 after being gassed in the trenches
Frank Pantridge
Patrick G Johnston
Belfast consultant Dr Stanley Roberts was college president from 1994-97
Wendy Dunbar, designer of the new book

When I agreed to write the history of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, I had no idea of the literary and historical adventure that lay ahead of me. This story, about one of the most prestigious medical institutions on this island, was a unique opportunity to take a fresh look at Irish history through the eyes of doctors and their medical colleagues.

However, it was important to set each historical medical development in its proper political and social context, so the colourful story involved kings and queens, emperors and statesmen, politicians and preachers, revolutionaries and empire-builders, writers and composers, and distinguished doctors - including many leading figures from the north - who helped to make the college what it is today.

It was established in the aftermath of the Cromwellian and other wars in Ireland in the mid-17th century, when the medical officers of the invading armies brought their expertise to Ireland.

They included Sir Patrick Dun, a field physician in the army of King William during his Irish campaign, who became one of the great benefactors of the college.

He was also a hotheaded individual who later became involved in a brief sword duel in a Dublin street with a senior colleague whom he suspected of trying to usurp his position. Both men were sternly reprimanded by the college and warned to behave properly in future - or else.

The college survived those troublesome times and was given royal charters by King Charles II in 1667 and by King William and Queen Mary in 1692, and a supplementary charter signed by Queen Victoria in 1890.

From that point it became known as the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland.

It faced up to many challenges during the perilous 18th and early 19th centuries, including the Great Famine, when many doctors died of diseases which were transmitted while tending to their patients.

In those difficult years more than twice as many Irish doctors perished while looking after their patients as Irish army officers died in combat. Life as a doctor in those days was dangerous as well as very demanding.

The early 19th century was known as the "Golden Age of Irish Medicine", when outstanding physicians including Robert Graves, William Stokes and Dominic Corrigan were at the forefront of significant medical developments, which still have relevance today. All three became presidents of the college.

Corrigan, who made a most important contribution to cardiology and to other branches of medicine, was the first Catholic to hold that prestigious position, and he served successively for an unequalled five terms, from 1859-64. He was honoured with a Baronetcy from Queen Victoria and was at one time a vice-chancellor of the former Queen's University of Ireland.

Corrigan had been a lively student and had allowed himself to become involved with the shady practice of body-snatching, whereby recently buried corpses were dug up for medical dissection.

It was a ghastly business, of which Corrigan did not fully approve, and he confessed to his earlier sins in an article for the British Medical Journal in 1879 shortly before his death.

Throughout the late 19th century the college greatly consolidated its reputation and was in the forefront of progress in providing equal opportunities for female medical students.

A significant number of the college's physicians from all over Ireland served in the First World War with distinction and some of these men - or members of their family - died or were badly injured.

They included Dr Robbie Smyth from Banbridge, a former Irish rugby international who was mentioned in despatches and was badly gassed twice when serving in France with the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). While recuperating in London he resigned from the RAMC and died in April 1916 at the age of 36. He is buried in Banbridge.

Another Ulsterman who served with distinction on the Western Front was Dr Charles Dickson, who in 1917 was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry in restoring a field-dressing station under heavy enemy bombardment. Tragically, in the same month his brother was killed in action.

After the war Dr Dickson - a fluent Irish speaker - lived in Dublin and later on in his career he became a highly-regarded Registrar of the College.

During the turbulent period of the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War, the college survived as best it could, but after partition it spent several years in relative decline.

It had been founded as an Anglican-based college during the Protestant Ascendency, and in post-partition times it found difficulty in adjusting to the new realities of the Irish Free State and later Irish Republic. For decades it became little more than a gentlemen's dining club, but from the Sixties onwards, it experienced a striking renaissance and broadened its intake and appeal to include physicians from all backgrounds.

One of its leading lights was Dr Bryan Alton, a larger-than-life physician who smoked Cuban cigars (even in hospitals), drove a Rolls-Royce and sported a glittering diamond tie-pin.

He was also a first-rate physician and administrator who, with many others, helped to form the basis from which the college has become a major player in the healthcare system in Ireland.

During the Troubles a number of leading physicians from north and south formed the Corrigan Club to enable doctors to meet more regularly on both sides of the border. This was an important initiative and one of the founder members was Professor Frank Pantridge, whose pioneering work led to the invention of the world's first mobile defibrillator. This in turn led to the mobile coronary care units which have saved countless lives.

Throughout the decades, northern physicians have made a significant contribution to medicine in Ireland and worldwide and also to the life of the college. They include Dr Stanley Roberts, a Belfast consultant who was president of the college from 1994-97. Other northerners who have served the college well are the cardiologist Dr Michael Scott, who was its librarian from 1997-2005, and his successor Dr Paul Darragh.

Fellows of the college include the vice-chancellor of Queen's University Professor Patrick Johnston and one of his predecessors, Sir Peter Froggatt.

The college has a rich archive of material, and keeper of collections Harriet Wheelock made available a large range of fascinating artefacts, including some of the earliest stethoscopes, as well as Napoleon's toothbrush and his snuff box.

Pictures of these items and many others are included in the book, and I am indebted to the great skill of the book designer and picture editor Wendy Dunbar, who has created such a visually beautiful publication.

The college has more than its share of great characters.

They include Dr Graves, who went on a painting holiday to Italy in 1819 and discovered only at the end of his journey that the taciturn companion whom he had met en route was none other than the celebrated English artist Joseph Mallard William Turner.

One of my favourite characters whom I encountered during my considerable research for the book was a Dr Jonathan Osborne (1794-1864), a kidney expert.

He was also a man with a sense of humour despite suffering badly from rheumatism in both hips.

He decreed in his will that he would like to be buried standing up as he did not want "any fellow at the Resurrection" to have a headstart over him.

There is also another fascinating story in the book about the dissection of a dead elephant in Dublin - all in the cause of medical advancement, of course.

As they say, you could not invent the half of it.

Healing Touch: The Illustrated History Of The Royal College Of Physicians Of Ireland, written by Alf McCreary and designed by Wendy Dunbar, is published by the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland and is available in all good bookshops, priced £35.

Belfast Telegraph

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