Sir Patrick Dun’s table—an accidental war memorial

Published in Editorial, Issue 6 (November/December 2014), Volume 22

Table 2

Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital was opened on Artichoke Road, later renamed Grand Canal Street, in 1808. It was built partially using funds bequeathed by Sir Patrick to the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland (RCPI) and it was used as a teaching hospital, training medical students and junior doctors from Trinity College, Dublin, until it was closed in 1987. As in most hospitals of the period, medical students and junior doctors were expected to live on site and a doctors’ residence was provided. At some point in the 1870s one of these residents scratched their name on the large, circular residence table (the first that we can identify is J.C. Hall in 1878), beginning a tradition that carried on for the next century of students and junior doctors carving their name on the table. By the 1920s the table’s surface was completely filled with names and the hospital provided a wooden cover, at which point the residents began to carve their names on this. When the hospital closed, the table was transferred to the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland in Kildare Street.

This year, as part of a research project in medical humanities, two Trinity medical students, Ellen Sweeney and Conor Larney, under the supervision of Harriet Wheelock from the RCPI heritage department, undertook to identify and record the names from the original table and to produce short biographies for each of them. Many of the names date from the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, and these medics often went on to join the British and Imperial forces during the First World War. After the war, Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital compiled a ‘Roll of Honour’ of all those who had served during the war, and we used this to compare with the names carved on the table.

There were 289 legible names identified and another 30 that just consisted of initials or were illegible and untraceable because they were faded, varnished over or overwritten. Of these, 121 served in the First World War, most frequently in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) but also in the Royal Navy, the Indian Medical Service and even the New Zealand and Sudanese Medical Services. Five of the doctors who recorded their names died in the course of the war. The first was William Ormsby Ball, who was killed at the Aisne in September 1914. Of these five we know most about Robertson Stewart Smyth, known to his family in Banbridge as Robbie, who was both a medical student and later a house surgeon in the hospital and was killed in 1915. Outside his medical career, Robbie Smyth was an accomplished rugby player, being capped twice for Ireland in 1904. After Sir Patrick Dun’s, he entered a career in the RAMC and was sent to France in 1914 as a major with the British Expeditionary Force. There he was soon mentioned in dispatches for his bravery. In December 1915 he fell victim to a new weapon, phosgene gas, and was transferred off the line. He survived and returned to the front the following month but within six weeks had been gassed again. This time he was invalided back to London, where he died from his lung damage in April 1916. Patrick George Hyde died of pneumonia aged 38 in March 1915. Edward Henry Montgomery, a medical student, died in Flanders serving with the Royal Field Artillery in 1916. George Taylor drowned whilst on service in Mesopotamia in 1917; the circumstances of his death are unclear.

In contrast, other doctors went on to have successful careers in the Army and Navy. Indeed, three ended up as major generals in the RAMC. Another, Thomas Madill, had his first experience of combat in Easter Week 1916, when he was one of the officer cadets in Trinity College, Dublin. He left Trinity before qualifying to serve as a surgeon probationer in the Royal Navy during the war. He returned to Trinity and after qualification rejoined the Navy, where he went on to have an illustrious career. He became a rear admiral and was awarded an OBE and Commander of the Bath. He was an honorary surgeon to both King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II.

Many of the doctors who carved their names also went on to have successful careers outside the military. Walter Clegg Stevenson, for example, is regarded as a pioneer in the field of radiation oncology. Joseph Bigger became Professor of Microbiology and Preventative Medicine in Trinity and was the person who provided Alexander Fleming with the culture plates on which he grew the original penicillin mould. Many went on to have careers in general practice and hospital medicine. Others became presidents of Royal Colleges and professors in medical schools from Cardiff to Cairo. Some developed interests and expertise outside medicine; Arthur Francis Kerr became a world-renowned expert on orchids. The medics who carved their names went on to work across the globe, from China and Hong Kong to Australia, New Zealand, the Seychelles, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa and Argentina.

Whilst we continue to trace the stories of those who carved their names, in the centenary of the onset of the First World War we think it is appropriate to remember those who went to war. What distinguishes the table from other ‘war memorials’ and what makes it unique is that the names were carved by those who participated.

Joseph Harbison is Associate Professor in Medical Gerontology, Trinity College, Dublin.

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