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John MacDonnell (1796 - 1892):
Physician; surgical pioneer

John MacDonnell from Belfast would have had his assured place in Irish medical history for having been appointed the foundation Professor of Surgery in the first medical school in Ulster (and a very innovative one), but he is particularly notable for having prepared and performed one of the most significant operations in that history: the first-ever operation under general anaesthetic, in this case ether, in Ireland.


MacDonnell was from a prominent County Antrim family. His father, James MacDonnell, was not only a highly distinguished figure in Ulster and Irish medicine, (and not only medicine) but is even known as “the father of Belfast medicine”. John MacDonnell was born at 15, Donegall Place, Belfast, educated at the Belfast Academy (today the Belfast Royal Academy), Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated BA in 1818, and received his Letters Testimonial, or Licence, of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, in 1821. He proceeded to Edinburgh University, where, also with a year’s study in London and one in Paris, he graduated MD in 1825. He returned to Ireland, married a Belfast woman called Charity Dobbs, and set up in practice in Dublin, where he was elected to the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and appointed Demonstrator in Anatomy at Richmond Hospital School.


In 1835 he was elected one of the five foundation professors at the innovative Medical Faculty of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, in October 1835, though clinical classes were not due to commence until May 1836, and so MacDonnell remained in Dublin. However, in January 1836, he was appointed visiting surgeon at the Richmond Hospital. Such was he in demand that the leading figure in the School, the surgeon Robert Carmichael, resigned his permanent position, nominally in favour of becoming a consultant surgeon; in reality because he wanted to make space for MacDonnell (to whom he also bequeathed £5,000, which today would be very roughly £250,000).


On 30 December 1846, an attending surgeon at Richmond Surgical Hospital, Dublin, happened to read in a medical journal an account of a recent operation in Boston in which the patient had been anaesthetised by ether, the first time this had ever been done. He immediately showed the article to MacDonnell, who was about to operate on an 18-year-old girl from County Meath, Mary O’Kane, who had suffered an injury to her arm from a hawthorn bush, from which there had developed a serious condition (suppurative arthritis, a virulent infection which can spread very rapidly) which left MacDonnell little alternative to prompt amputation. After reading the article, he decided to postpone the operation for 24 hours, which he spent building an ether-making device. He tested the ether successfully on himself, that is, he managed to render himself temporarily unconscious several times, and on New Year’s Day 1847, one of the most noteworthy days in Irish medical history, MacDonnell, assisted by several colleagues (including Carmichael), and observed by others, performed the operation, a mid-arm amputation. Mary O’Kane recovered and reported having felt nothing unpleasant from the ether and no pain from the amputation (though she found the stitching uncomfortable). MacDonnell the same evening, from his home at 4, Gardiner’s Row, wrote an account of the operation, which was published soon afterwards in the Dublin Medical Press. His words perhaps reflect the adrenalin or exhaustion, of the day:


“I regard this discovery as one of the most important of this century. It will rank with vaccination and other of the greatest benefits that medical science has bestowed on man.”... “It occasion beyond measure more worthy for Te Deums in Christian cathedrals and for thanksgiving to the Author and Giver of all good, than all the victories that fire and sword have ever achieved.”

The operation was fully written up and published in four days, a striking rate of editorial expedition which might shame the 21st century, especially as Arthur Jacob, the editor, had to work over a weekend. 

After this great milestone, MacDonnell was appointed Professor of Descriptive Anatomy at the Richmond from 1847 to 1851, when he became a Medical Poor Law Commissioner, which he remained until 1872, when he was 80. He published several articles throughout this time, which were mainly clinical notes, but at the age of 83 produced a history of the 1641 rebellion, The Ulster Civil War of 1641 and its Consequences, which deals, inter alia, with the reputation of an ancestor, Sir Alisdair MacDonnell, during that conflict.


One of his brothers was Alexander MacDonnell, who became famous as a Resident Commissioner of the Board of Education, and the driving force behind the reorganisation of the Irish National School system in the middle of the nineteenth century. He was created baronet in 1872, and an imposing statue was erected to him in Dublin, though after the 1941 North Strand Road incident in which German Luftwaffe bombs (for reasons still unclear, accident, underhand politics or crossed radio navigation beams) fell or were dropped nearby, that is, behind Tyrone House in Marlborough Street, at the then high cost of £1200, the statue was taken into a kind of safe custody, from which it apparently never emerged.


Another Alexander MacDonnell was a cousin of John, born and educated in Belfast, who was a wealthy sugar merchant and one of the greatest chess masters of the century.


John MacDonnell died at his home in Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin and was interred in the family plot at Kilsharvan, County Meath.

Born: 11 February 1796
Died: 20 1892
Richard Froggatt

“MacDonnell, Father and Son”, Seventh TPC Kirkpatrick Memorial Lecture, 13 Journal of the Irish Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons, 4.10.1984, Dr Peter Froggatt; Dictionary of Irish Biography; Irish Times, 23.12.1998, Col ED Doyle; The Independent, 24.1.99 Robert Fisk