During the recent Heritage Week I took the opportunity of visiting ‘Surgeons’, a place that I, and many Dubliners, pass daily but never enter. The site was previously an abandoned Quaker graveyard, with the first College building erected in 1810. The beautiful Georgian building you see today is anextension of that and was finished in 1825.
The College dates back a little further to 11th February 1784 when it received its charter from George III, and it held its first meeting in the boardroom of the Rotunda Hospital on 2 March. Among those present on that auspicious day were the first president, Professor Samuel Croker-King, and William Dease, the first professor of surgery. It is important to note that admission was not barred on sectarian grounds, as was the custom of the time. In fact, Dease was one of a dozen Catholics to become president of the college. (Curious thing: Dease committed suicide and there are at least three different versions as to the circumstances, but nobody knows for sure. However, he cut his femoral artery, and his statue (in the Main Entrance) shows a dark line at exactly where the fatal cut may have been made!)
Sir William Wilde
Over the years many of the college’s former students have made famous contributions to medicine, and beyond. William Wallace (1791-1837) studied dermatology in London under Thomas Bateman, and it was here that he learned about inoculation and vaccination. When he returned to Dublin he opened the first hospital in the British Isles to treat skin disease. Charles Cameron (1830-1921) was as the forefront of hygiene and public health, and was granted the Freedom of Dublin for his work. The McDonnells, father John (1796-1892) and son Robert (1828-1889) both made significant medical firsts. John is known as being the first person in Ireland to use ether as inhalation anaesthesia during the amputation of an arm in the Richmond Hospital on New Year’s Day 1847. And, on 20th April 1865 Robert preformed the first human blood transfusion in Ireland on a young girl in Dublin’s Jervis Street Infirmary. He was elected President of the College in 1877.
Sir William Wilde (father of the playwright Oscar), founded St Mark’s Ophthalmic Hospital, and it was later amalgamated with the National Eye hospital to form the well-known Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital. Oliver St John Gogarty, a surgeon renowned for his dexterity and speed, had a few more strings to his bow. He was a Free State Senator; wrote books, plays, poetry and is forever remembered as the inspiration for Buck Mulligan (a medical student!), the first character we meet in James Joyce’s Ulysses. His poem Tailteann Ode won a bronze medal at the 1924 Olympic Games. And there is a fine paining of him by one of Ireland’s greatest artists, Sir William Orpen, in the President’s Room.
During the Easter Rising the building on St Stephen’s Green was occupied by members of the Irish Citizen army, under the command of Michael Mallin and Countess Markievicz. Gunfire from Crown forces based in the Shelbourne Hotel raked the building, and numerous marks can be seen on its front. One smashed into a door in the Board Room and its mark is still there. Volunteers stayed in place until the final order to surrender was given. A few, however, did leave a mark by carving their names into a pillar.
The College began a long period of expansion from the mid-1960s under the guidance of Harry O’Flanagan. The old Mercer Hospital was acquired and it houses a library, college archives, heritage collections and student accommodation. Other properties on York Street (opposite the College) have been acquired and are currently being re-developed. Beaumont Hospital is now the main centre for medical training, and advanced research work. And the international aspect has increased in recent years with schools in Bahrain and Malaysia. The college is recognised as a world centre of medical excellence, and there are over sixty countries represented in the current study body.
‘Surgeons’ – St Stephen’s Green
* Sir William Wilde photo courtesy of RCSI