Desmond O’Neill: The Healing Touch

Des O Neill 2015Although not as grand as the Museum Quarter of Hapsburg Vienna, Dublin has a proportionately rich concentration of museums, galleries, and Victorian heritage alongside Trinity College Dublin, our own mini Museum Quarter. The analogy is not entirely without basis as both concentrations arose in the context of large empires, and elements of both have taken some time to adapt to new forms of existence within relatively small democracies.

In Ireland this change was largely entwined with the recalibration of the status and relationships of an Anglo-Irish and largely Protestant establishment within a new state, which from the 1930s assumed a markedly different theocratic direction to the existing orthodoxy. Many of these institutions went into a form of inward looking hibernation for a number of decades, emerging eventually strengthened and revitalised by the fusion of traditions in a pluralist society.

This is very much the case for the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland, known by most visiting the area by its handsome and austere portico in grey Portland stone at 6 Kildare Street, affectionately known within the profession as “No 6.” In a beautifully illustrated new history of an institution known for most of its existence as the King’s and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland, the author Alf McCreary relates how this bastion of King and country went into a Cinderella like state of suspended animation for four decades after the founding of the state, but is now emerging as a potent force—not only in Irish and international healthcare, but also in preserving a critical aspect of our heritage.

The history of medicine has gone through a number of phases, illustrated by the predecessors of this very accessible book. The first phase was that of the physician as gentleman antiquarian, usually centred from the perspective of the doctor and with a general tendency to view the evolution of medicine as a whiggish one of constant progress.

Although vocational historians might now be sniffy about what they perceive as historiographical dilettantism, these pioneers played a very valuable part in identifying and preserving collections of literature and materials that are central to our understanding of the evolution of health and medicine in Ireland.

It is no coincidence that John Widdess, the physician author of the first modern history of the college (1963), had a key role in the preservation and protection of a number of collections of medical libraries in Dublin, and that the Heritage Centre in the college now houses the most important collection of such material in Ireland.

Influenced by the analysis of philosopher Michel Foucault on knowledge and power in healthcare and the challenge of liberating our perspectives from the “medical gaze,” the next stage in medical history was notable for both the emphasis of the experience of the patient and the primacy of the historian, as exemplified in the writings of Roy Porter, among others.

To its credit, the college recognised this trend, and commissioned the social historian Tony Farmer to write a history with a much broader perspective, Patients, Potions, and Physicians—A Social History of Medicine in Ireland, a milestone in medical history writing in Ireland.

This latest history has been commissioned from an author with a background in journalism with the Belfast Telegraph, in conjunction with an excellent book designer, Wendy Dunbar, and is more populist in tone and generously illustrated from many sources, but in particular from the rich trove in the collections of the college’s Heritage Centre.

Drawing on both of these histories and bringing the stories up to date in a very approachable and appealing fashion, this book happily can be recommended to lay and professional readers alike. It embroiders the fabric with not only stories of contemporary events, but also medical developments in Ireland that occurred outside of the college, such as the pioneering work of Dr Kathleen Lynn with children in St Ultan’s Hospital.

And what a story it is, from its beginnings as an attempt to provide rigour and standards in a chaotic environment of quacks and bizarre remedies. Drawing on the example of the London College of Physicians (1518), the physician John Stearne, a Meath native and Cambridge graduate, founded a Fraternity in Physicians just outside the grounds of Trinity in 1654.

Granted a Charter by Charles II in 1667 as the College of Physicians in Dublin, the college grew in stature, although an agreement with Trinity College Dublin in 1680 gave the first overt intimations of sectarianism, whereby all presidents of the college must be Protestants of the Church of Ireland. This was reaffirmed in the new Charter of 1697, which imposed a religious bar and required an oath against transubstantiation from fellows.

The author deftly navigates the degree to which professional institutions can be ensnared in the religious and political themes of the day without detracting from the vibrant and colourful story of the professionalisation of medicine in Ireland. Indeed, it is quite reassuring to learn that the college, given the background of its membership, protested to the British Army over an order to inform the authorities about wounded patients during the War of Independence (1919-21).

Through the course of the book we come across a range of intriguing stories, from grave robbing through to venereal disease, Napoleon’s toothbrush, the dissection of an elephant, to the plight of dispensary doctors during the Great Famine who suffered great hardship and a high death rate. We are also introduced to the Golden Age of Irish medicine in the mid 19th century, when Graves, Stokes, and Corrigan attracted international attention to their clinical methods and developments, without shying away from some of the unseemly disagreements among these highly strung individuals.

The lasting impression is that of an institution which not only cherishes its past through its Heritage Centre and a beautiful College building (which is increasingly accessible to the public), but also one that is embracing a future where Irish medicine has a global perspective. Joint programmes in many countries around the world complement a highly professionalised portfolio of training and education, and this volume provides an entertaining and insightful introduction to an institution that deserves to be better known to a wider audience.

Healing Touch: an illustrated history of the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland. Alf McCreary (author), Wendy Dunbar (design and picture editor). Dublin, Royal College of Physicians in Ireland, 2015, 256pp.

This blog is based on an article in the Irish Times culture section.

Desmond (Des) O’Neill is a geriatrician and member of the council of the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland. He had no role in the commissioning or production of Healing Touch.

Competing interests: None declared.