Remembering Dr Charles Lucas, 1713–71

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2013), News, Volume 21

Seán Murphy reports on a recent Royal Academy of Medicine in Ireland symposium.

Dr Charles Lucas,  portrait by Thomas Hickey. (Royal College of Physicians of Ireland)

Dr Charles Lucas,
portrait by Thomas Hickey. (Royal College of Physicians of Ireland)

Some 50 interested individuals gathered in Dublin’s City Hall in Dame Street on the evening of Wednesday 25 September to remember a figure who has hitherto been somewhat historically neglected. This is Charles Lucas, the County Clare-born apothecary, author, municipal reformer, radical patriot, medical doctor and parliamentarian. The tercentenary of his birth in 1713 was being marked by a three-hour public symposium organised by the Royal Academy of Medicine in Ireland in cooperation with Dublin City Council and its Archives department.

Proceedings were opened by Lord Mayor Oisín Quinn, who briefly outlined Lucas’s political career and role in Dublin Corporation, and Mary O’Doherty, president of the History of Medicine Section of the Royal Academy of Medicine in Ireland (RAMI), who highlighted aspects of his medical career.

There was an impressive line-up of speakers at the symposium: Prof. James Kelly (St Patrick’s College/DCU); Prof. Jacqueline Hill (NUI Maynooth); Dr Eoin Magennis (president, Eighteenth Century Ireland Society); Prof. Marian Lyons (NUI Maynooth); Dr Susan Mullaney (RAMI/UCC); and the writer, who is affiliated to UCD Adult Education Centre. Prof. David Dickson (TCD), in the chair, ably kept speakers to their allotted times and ensured that there was an opportunity for contributions from the audience at the end of the night.

Kelly presented an overview of Lucas’s career, touching on his role in the passage of a 1735 control of drugs act, outlining his campaign for municipal reform in Dublin in the 1740s and, after his return from exile in 1761, his parliamentary career. Kelly allowed that Lucas’s anti-Catholicism may have been exaggerated but referred to the intemperate language that marked many of his publications. While considering that he did not have as prominent a role in parliament as Flood or Pery, for example, Kelly credited Lucas with making print central to the politics of the day and changing the nature of elections.

Hill provided a detailed account of the structure of municipal politics in Dublin in Lucas’s time, explaining that the Corporation was divided into two houses, the upper composed of the lord mayor and aldermen, and the lower of the sheriffs and commons, the latter being elected by members of the city’s guilds. The New Rules of 1672 concentrated most power in the hands of the aldermen, leaving Lucas and fellow reformers in the city commons with a strong sense of grievance against their perceived loss of rights. Hill considered that Lucas’s political thought was traditional in many ways, but allowed that his election to parliament in 1761 was an astonishing achievement, given his comparatively low status.

Magennis related Lucas to the preoccupations of the broad patriot movement in the eighteenth century. He referred to Lucas’s legislative interest in the control of drugs and the relief of debtors, and his emphasis on Irish autonomy, which was accompanied by great respect for the British constitution. Magennis noted that Lucas’s writings were hard going and he was of the opinion that the question of the strength of his opposition to Catholicism was an open one. Magennis also stated that Lucas played a critical role in the development of the patriot press.

The focus now moved to the medical, as Lyons gave an account of the career of one who might be viewed as a forerunner of Lucas in the seventeenth century, Dr Thomas Arthur, a Catholic from a prominent Limerick family who trained on the Continent and worked in a highly unregulated profession. Illustrating how low the standard of medicine was in Arthur’s time, Lyons noted how trained doctors had to work alongside quacks, giving examples of inappropriate prescriptions and botched operations. Arthur’s career extended to the mid-1660s, and despite his religion he was regarded with favour by the Dublin Castle establishment.

Mullaney began by outlining medical conditions in the eighteenth century, when again regular and irregular practitioners were to be found in close proximity. She described Lucas’s innovative contributions to the control of the preparation and sale of drugs, the first being the 1735 act; his role in its passage, however, is not fully documented. Mullaney then dealt with Lucas’s 1741 publication calling for further reform, Pharmacomastix, and an act passed in 1761 featuring more radical controls on apothecaries, which became known as the ‘Lucas act’. She concluded that medically Lucas was in some respects ahead of his time.

The writer was the final speaker and dealt with Lucas’s Essay on waters and other medical writings. The three-part Essay, published in London in 1756, teemed with medical ideas and proposals, in particular the conviction that water was in itself a powerful curative agent. Displaying a keen awareness of the importance of hygiene, Lucas proposed that hospitals should incorporate medical bathing facilities, which should be open to the poor. Intriguingly, perhaps anticipating the modern debate over water birthing, Lucas suggested that in cases of difficult birth ‘warm bathing’ might be of benefit, leading me to concur with Mullaney that he was indeed ahead of his time.

The evening concluded with a question-and-answer session in which members of the audience addressed many of the issues covered by the speakers and raised a few new ones themselves. All in all, it was a very successful symposium that should make Lucas better known and perhaps judged more objectively in terms of his achievements and failings. HI

Seán Murphy’s A forgotten patriot doctor: Charles Lucas 1713–1771 is freely available on-line at http://tinyurl.com/lucaspatriotdoctor.

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