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Drunks, duels, pranks and practice

October 16, 2013

Irish medical student life and culture, c.1800–1950 by Laura Kelly

Writing his memoirs in 1957, James Johnston Abraham, a doctor who began his medical education at Trinity College Dublin in 1894, commented of medical student life:

Medical students since the time of Dickens and Albert Smith have always had the reputation of being rather wild. It has been suggested, sardonically, that this is because they know that once they become doctors they must be even more decorous than parsons, and so make the most of it while they can. But, of course, the real reason probably is that their behaviour is the result of coming up against pain and suffering and the gruesome side of life at a time when the only way they can react against it is to rush to the other extreme and hilariously ignore it.

Late-19th-century Irish medical students. Image supplied by author

Late-19th-century Irish medical students. Image supplied by author

My current research project examines the experiences of medical students, who, like Johnston Abraham, studied at Irish universities in the period 1800 to 1950. I am interested in students’ experiences in the lecture theatre, hospital and dissection room, and in extracurricular activities on the sports field, in lay and religious societies, in ‘digs’ and in the pub. This period was one of vast change, not just in the sphere of medical education, which moved from an apprenticeship system to a more regulated system of education from the mid-19th century, but also with regard to Irish politics. Politically, Ireland was part of the British Empire from 1801 to the War of Independence, and in 1922 the Irish Free State Treaty came into force. Irish religious sectarianism was reflected in the medical profession, which suffered greatly from religious rivalries and professional jealousies. Against that backdrop I have three broad areas of research:

Firstly, how did Irish medical schools inculcate students with the hallmarks of Irish medical professional identity? For example, did professional sectarian divisions permeate into educational structures? Secondly, was there anything distinctive about Irish medical education and students’ educational experiences? Particularly, how did factors such as religion, gender, local circumstances and questions of empire affect their educational experiences? Thirdly, what were students’ extracurricular activities? Did religious and other networks formed during university subsequently consolidate or divide professional identity? My project thus draws on Irish doctors’ memoirs, university calendars, student guides, student newspapers, student diaries and letters, and contemporary Irish literature.

Medical students in Ireland, as elsewhere, were characterised by rowdiness and by drunken and at times disorderly behaviour. Reports of drunken brawls and duels were common in the Irish press. For example, in 1840, a medical student called Michael Head Burgoyne was brought before the Dublin magistrates, charged with organising a duel with another man he had argued with after a night of drinking and card-playing. Similarly, in 1841, a student called Scott appeared before the magistrates in Dublin to make a complaint against two fellow students with whom he had brawled. Scott alleged that on the day in question he had been attending a female patient in hospital and, as he was consoling her, another student, John Reed, laughed in his face and began to jeer him, leading to a fight breaking out between Scott, Reed and Reed’s brother. Robert Thompson, who studied and lived at Dr Stevens Hospital in the 1840s, wrote in his diary of “a number of wild fellows” who resided in his room, and that he and his contemporaries usually spent their evenings “sparring and drinking punch and going to the upper gallery at the theatre”.

Frequenting brothels was a common pastime. For example, a newspaper article from 1841 reported on the attempted suicide of medical student Patrick McLoughlin in a “house of ill-fame”. The screams of the prostitutes in the house brought a policeman to the scene. According to the newspaper report, “The unfortunate being had, it appeared, being living, or at least spending the greater part of his time, for the last twelve months in the abode of infamy, until having exhausted his means, he, in a moment of despair, attempted to perpetrate the frightful crime of suicide”. Similarly, in the same year, the Freeman’s Journal reported the sad tale of a 20-year-old student at the Anglesey Hospital in Dublin, called Humphrey Minchin, who had been refused admission to a Dublin brothel because of his intoxication. He broke down the door of the establishment and assaulted “an unfortunate female”, Eliza James, before a servant in the house hurled a jug at his head, killing him.

By the late 19th century, however, in Ireland (again as elsewhere) the image of the medical student appears to have improved, and critical reports in the Irish press appear less common. Lecturers’ addresses from the period give an insight into the conduct now expected of medical students. In an 1860 speech to students at the Meath Hospital, Professor William Henry Porter commented on the dangers that could arise from the “extraordinary liberty a medical student enjoys and the extraordinary temptation to which he is exposed”. He advised students to avoid living with other medical students and to show “the utmost care and circumspection in the regulation of your conduct”. Similarly, his son, Sir George Porter, who like his father before him was surgeon to the Meath Hospital, advised students in 1889 of the danger of “abundant temptations to idleness and intemperance… Do not be found in the company of idlers, wasteful of their time and their money, but cultivate the society of studious and industrious men, who are devoted to their profession”.

Medical student societies may have also helped to inculcate students with ideals about professional identity. The first of these societies, the Medico-Chirurgical Society, was established at Trinity College Dublin in 1867, with similar societies being established at other Irish medical schools from the 1870s onwards. In common with the medical societies attended by doctors, these student societies held regular meetings where members presented papers on medical and scientific subjects, as well as discussing the concerns of the medical profession. They were regulated by university professors who attended meetings alongside their students. The societies also provided students with a voice for their grievances. For example, in 1899, the Medical Students Association at Queen’s College Cork wrote to the Academic Council to complain about the teaching of anatomy and the lack of a bathroom for resident students at the South Infirmary. Additionally, medical student societies had a social function, with committee members responsible for organising student debates, dinners and dances, and these helped to cement a cohesive social identity.

Although by the early 20th century students were generally better behaved, many still had time for pranks. James Graham, who studied at the Royal College of Surgeons, remarked in an entry in his 1935 diary that “Poor old Evatt got it from the ‘bright things’ at lecture. I think they are an awfully ignorant mob some of them.” Disruptions to conferring ceremonies were also commonplace, such as in 1910, where students at a National University ceremony engaged in an “exhibition of potato hurling”.

In spite of these lively social activities, students’ lives were not necessarily easy in this period. Medical education could be precarious and gruelling. Dublin student Richard Thompson contracted smallpox in 1832, noting in his diary his belief that he had contracted it from a subject he had been dissecting. In a similar vein, 30 years later, J H Corbett, the professor of anatomy at Queen’s College Cork, wrote to the College Council to complain about the condition of the dissecting room, stating that “several students have been seriously attacked by diarrhoea and all the symptoms of poisoning by impure exhalations”.

Furthermore, clinical experience could affect students’ emotional wellbeing. Noel Browne, an Irish politician who had been a medical student at Trinity College Dublin in the 1930s, recalled an incident when, “on the district”, he failed to revive a sick baby because of his lack of experience, for which he blamed himself. And almost one hundred years earlier, in the 1840s, the physician and poet Richard D’Alton Williams wrote of his reaction as a medical student in Dublin to the death of a young girl from consumption:

I stood beside the couch in tears,
Where pale and calm she slept,
And, though I’ve gazed on death for years,
I blush not that I wept.

It is hoped that this new research will provide insights into Irish medical student culture against the backdrop of Ireland’s unique political and religious climate. It will be intriguing to rediscover whether good practice in the past still remains relevance to the modern medical profession today.

Dr Laura Kelly is a postdoctoral research fellow at University College Dublin (laura.kelly@ucd.ie). You can find out more about her work online.

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