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Students at Dr Steevens’ Hospital

‘I was bound to Colles on the 27th of October, 1831, when just commencing my sixteenth-year, the 12th of that month being my birthday, and had left school only about a fortnight; I had received a pretty fair, though not a very well grounded education, the method of teaching at my last school being very superficial; the rudiments of Latin I had been well taught at Portora, where I spent two years…’

Extract from the diary of Robert Thompson, a student at Dr Steevens’ Hospital in the early 1830s.*

Foppish medical student, courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London

Robert Thompson, was, like Abraham Colles, a native of Co. Kilkenny and would later return to work there following his studies at Dr Steevens’ Hospital and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. His diary, which is synopsised by Kirkpatrick in one of his many articles on Dr Steevens’ Hospital and the history of medicine in Ireland, gives us glimpses of what student life was like at Dr Steevens’ Hospital in the early 1830s. Thompson records that he attended lectures in Dublin (it is unspecified whether all were in Dr Steevens’), on ‘Chemistry, Surgery, Anatomy and Physiology’. Given that he was apprenticed to Colles, anatomy and surgery played an important role. Thompson tells us that on his return to Dr Steevens’ in October 1832 he ‘found Harry (his brother) and Graham working hard dissecting, preparing to pass in May; this was my first winter dissecting, which business I liked and worked very hard at, but at Christmas was laid up for eleven days with small-pox, caught, I suppose, from a subject in the dissecting-room.’ Thompson also benefited from seeing James William Cusack, another renowned Surgeon at Dr Steevens’ Hospital, in action on 22 March 1835, when he saw him tie the carotid artery for aneurism.

It is clear, however, that Thompson’s educational experience was a wide one, which involved many non-curricular activities: we are told that he ‘lived in Steevens’ Hospital, where a number of wild fellows in our room, generally spent our evenings sparring and drinking punch and going to the upper gallery at the theatre.’ When he returned for the Michaelmas term of 1833 he became friends with William Colles (Abraham’s son who would later became be appointed as Surgeon to Dr Steevens’) and recounts how the younger Colles and he ‘spent a jolly winter, drank a deal of punch, went to the theatre at least two a week, passed the second examination May, ‘34’.’ This theme continues in a diary which only sporadically mentions reading texts such as ‘Richerand’s Phisiology’, ‘Béclard’s General Anatomy’ (1830), ‘Cheselden’s Anatomy’ and ‘Lloyd’s book on Scrophula’. Despite this Thompson managed to pass his various examinations and in 1837 qualified as a licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons.

Rules for the pupils, c. 1870, courtesy of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland.

With the formal establishment of a Medical School at Dr Steevens in 1857 rules were tightened and, as the above set of rules clearly demonstrate, the authorities at Dr Steevens’ Hospital were keen that their students would concentrate on their studies and not be arrested for brawling as Thompson had once been. Thompson’s diary, while enjoyable, tells us relatively little about the education taking place at Dr Steevens’ in the earlier nineteenth century but luckily a register of students at Dr Steevens’ Hospital, dating from 1858 onwards (now in the RCPI), gives us far more details about the range of courses on offer: Hospital Practice; Anatomy and Physiology; Practical Anatomy; Surgery; Medicine; Chemistry; Practical Chemistry; Midwifery; Practical Midwifery; Materia Medica; Jurisprudence; Botany; and Pharmacy. Not only this, but we are able to track which courses were taken by individual students. Some students, such as Edmund Wilson and Lewis Carroll (both in 1880), paid for all the courses; others, such as Luke Gerald Dillon (1878-79) paid on average £3 and three shillings for courses on Anatomy and Physiology, Practical Chemistry and Materia Medica. Charles McVittie of Dublin, in the first term of 1862-1863, studied ‘Dissection, Demonstrations, Physiology, Surgery, Medicine and Hospital’ and in the summer term took ‘Practical Chemistry, Materia Medica, Jurisprudence, Zoology and Hospital’. He progressed in 1863-64 to ‘Dissection, Demonstrations, Physiology, Surgery, Chemistry and Hospital’, taking ‘Jurisprudence, Botany and Hospital’ in the summer term. In his third year he concentrated on ‘Dissections, Demonstrations, Physiology, Surgery and Hospital.’

The absence of female names here is indicative of the percentage of women trained as doctors in Dr Steevens’ at this time. As Kirkpatrick (1924) relates, Mrs Janthe Legett had been the first women to study at the Medical School at Dr Steevens’, attending classes from November 1879 to the summer of 1873 – albeit in an unofficial capacity. The first official recommendation of an application from a female student was in October 1872 when the application of Mrs Isobel Thorne to became a pupil was granted. This auspicious start was not continued for by September of the following year Mrs Wolf’s application was rejected by the school committee on grounds which ensured that no female applicant would be taken on as a student within the lifetime of this Victorian Medical School:

That the Medical Committee of Dr Steevens’ Hospital have, by their experience of the education of students of both sexes in combined classes, been forced to the conclusion that it cannot be carried out without extensive modifications of existing arrangements, which they cannot adopt. The Committee have not arrived at this conclusion from any opinion adverse to the general principle of female medical education, nor by anything reflecting in the slightest degree on the conduct of those ladies who have hitherto attended their classes, which has always been such as to merit their highest approval, but solely from the difficulty in their institution of carrying out pari passu the education of male and female students, without doing injustice to both classes of pupils.

* Kirpatrick, T. P. C.(1913): ‘The Diary of an Irish Medical Student 1831-1837’ edited with notes by T. Percy Kirkpatrick… (Dublin).

Kirpatrick, T. P. C.(1913): ‘The Diary of an Irish Medical Student 1831-1837’ edited with notes by T. Percy Kirkpatrick… (Dublin).
Kirkpatrick, T. P. C. (1924; reprinted 2008) The History of Doctor Steevens’ Hospital Dublin, 1720-1920 (Dublin).
Register of pupils at Dr Steevens. 1858 onwards = RCPI TPCK/6/6/3/7.

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