Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland by Pat Liddy

Before the mid-18th century, while physicians were properly trained and licenced by recognised medical institutions, surgeons usually were not. They were commonly called barber-surgeons and were often more gifted with their tonsorial skills rather than with the surgeon’s knife. Following calls for the foundation of a College of Surgeons for Ireland (this had already happened in England in 1745) a meeting of the Dublin Society of Surgeons took place in a tavern in 1780. They petitioned the king of England to release them from their “preposterous union with the Company (guild) of Barbers”. Four years later their efforts were rewarded with the foundation of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) by a royal charter of King George III. Interestingly the first meeting of the RCSI took place in the board room of a maternity hospital; the Rotunda Hospital, which today is still operating at the top of O’Connell Street.

The college’s first schools of anatomy and surgery were opened at the rear of Mercer’s Hospital in 1789 and it would take another 21 years before the college could move to its present premises at the corner of St Stephen’s Green and York Street. It was built on a former Quaker burial ground. By 1827 it was extended to its present frontage on St Stephen’s Green. Above the columns, inside the central pediment, although worn by age and weathering, the Royal Coat of Arms is clearly visible. England is represented by the lion, Scotland by the unicorn and Ireland by the harp set into the central shield.

A close inspection of the façade of this elegant classical building will reveal scores of bullet holes on the pillars and the stone work. Hardly surprising given that the premises had been occupied by over one hundred Irish insurgents during the Rising of April 1916. British Army machine gunners had positioned themselves on the roofs of nearby buildings and occasionally let fly at the college. After a week, following the surrender of the rebel leadership elsewhere in the city, the little garrison inside the College were ordered to lay down its arms. Curiously the rebel who, under a white flag, brought the order of surrender, was herself a medical person, later to become a renowned midwife, Elizabeth O’Farrell. Another famous woman associated with this event was the second-in-command of the garrison, Countess Markievicz, who two years later became the first women to be elected to the British parliament. The RCSI admitted its first woman to a licentiate in 1886 (eighteen years before Trinity College admitted its first female students).

War impacted on the college again when an armed guard was put in place during the Civil War of 1922/23 and during the Second World War a public air-raid shelter was constructed in the basement.

Internationally celebrated surgeons have been members of the RCSI. Arguably the most well-known was Sir William Wilde, the father of writer, Oscar Wilde. He was an eminent eye and ear surgeon (as well as an author himself on medicine, archaeology and folklore) and was the founder of St Mark’s Ophthalmic Hospital which in 1895 became the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital. It currently functions on Adelaide Road. Other outstanding members included Francis Rynd who in 1844 invented the world’s first hypodermic syringe which allowed doctors to deliver drugs directly to target areas within the body. John Houston was the first doctor in Ireland to pioneer the use of the microscope in medicine (1840s). In 1814, long before the introduction of X-rays, Abraham Colles was the first to accurately describe the diagnosis for a common wrist fracture that today carries his name; the Colles Fracture.

Perhaps the most curious invention to come from a member of the RCSI was the specialised amputation saw developed in 1851 by the aptly if not grimly named Richard Butcher. Butcher didn’t believe in placing patients under anaesthetic as he preferred their bodies to be rigid (with tension, fear and pain, no doubt). In any case, the first operation in Ireland using anaesthesia had only taken place four years earlier under RCSI professor of anatomy, John McDonnell. Another medical device improvement was an endoscope constructed in 1865 by RCSI urologist, Francis Cruise, who performed some of the world’s first endoscopic treatments successfully in living patients.

Space in the main college building was never going to be enough and gradually old tenement houses along York Street were purchased from the 1950s onwards and their sites rebuilt to provide this extra accommodation. Only opened this year, the latest structure, the Academic Building, is a triumph of modern architecture providing 10 storeys (three underground) of additional space. York Street itself is a narrow road and potentially such a large building could have substantially darkened it but the clever use of a special reflective glass actually brightens the surroundings.

Today, the extended campus of the Royal College of Surgeons, the largest single medical training institution in the country, and has an enrolment of around 3,400 Irish and international students and post-graduates.


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