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Sir William McCormac (1836 - 1901):

William McCormac was one of the most prominent surgeons of his generation whose work took him to places as far apart as European battlefields and Harley Street. He was also a well-known "character" in London life of the Victorian era.

McCormac was born in Belfast, where his father was the first Professor of Medicine at the (later Royal) Belfast Academical Institution, in the first medical school in Ulster. He himself attended that establishment in its guise as "normal" school, then proceeded via spells in Dublin and Paris to Queen's College, Belfast (later Queen's University) where he graduated in Arts (BA 1855, MA 1858) and MD (1857) having initially enrolled as a scholar in engineering student (he won the second-year engineering scholarship in 1852). He was made licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, 1857, and fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland in 1864, in which year he commenced general practice in Belfast along with working as a surgeon and lecturer on clinical surgery at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast.

In 1870 he set up practice in Harley Street, London, but in that year the Franco-Prussian War began and he went to France as a volunteer in an organisation set up under the aegis of the Red Cross. This was despatched to Metz, very close to the war zone, and when the overwhelming Prussian attack began McCormac was managed to escape on one of the last trains westwards. Back in Paris, he enrolled in an Anglo-American ambulance unit which was posted to Sedan; he treated many of the wounded from the battle there, again an overwhelming French defeat, he was based in an army barracks, the Caserne d'Asfeld, which had been converted into a hospital. Such were the casualty numbers that he remained there under Prussian occupation; he worked in co-operation with Prussian surgeons treating the wounded of both armies.

The war ended in 1871 and he returned to London, where he was appointed Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and assistant surgeon at St Thomas' Hospital, becoming full surgeon and lecturer in surgery in 1873. In 1876 he again volunteered to go abroad to a war zone, this time as chief surgeon of the National Aid Society for the Sick and Wounded, to the Turko-Serbian conflict. In 1880 he was elected President of the London Medical Society, and in 1881 was Honorary General Secretary to the International Medical Congress in London. He acted as an examiner for several bodies including the University of London and Royal College of Surgeons, of which he was now member of the Council (1883) and subsequently President (1896); he was re-elected on four successive occasions, which was unprecedented. During the Boer War of 1899, he again travelled to the theatre of conflict as consulting surgeon to the British Army in South Africa.

McCormac found time to publish: Antiseptic Surgery appeared in 1880, and Surgical Operations in two parts, in 1885 and 1889; he also contributed articles to a number of journals. He also published an account of his Franco-Prussian War experiences, Notes and Recollections of an Ambulance Surgeon in 1871. He received numerous awards and distinctions: knighted in 1881, he was appointed KCVO (Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order) in 1898 and KCB (Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath) in 1901 in recognition of his services in the Boer War.  Having been created a baronet in 1897, this meant that he had effectively four knighthoods. He was also awarded the Légion d'Honneur by the French Republic. Academically, he was awarded the honorary degrees of MD and MCh from the University of Dublin. He received two honorary degrees from Belfast: MCh in 1878 (Queen's University in Ireland) and DSc in 1882 (Royal University of Ireland).

In his native Ulster he was President of the Ulster Medical Society in 1870 and a member of the Queen's University Senate. His portrait hangs in the Great Hall at Queen's University (another portrait hangs in Lincoln's Inn, London, and he also had the rather different accolade of being caricatured by the popular "Spy" in Vanity Fair, a leading London magazine of the late-Victorian and Edwardian era. His wife, Kathleen Maria Charters, was from Belfast, where her father was a prominent philanthropist (including to the Royal Belfast Academical Institution); McCormac was said to have eloped with her. They married in 1861.

McCormac died in London and was interred in Kensal Green cemetery.

Born: 17 January 1836
Died: 4 December 1901
Richard Froggatt

Wesley McCann


Dictionary of Irish Biography; Davis Coakley: Masters of Irish Medicine; TW Moody & JC Beckett: Queen's Belfast 1845-1949; Sir Peter Froggatt: "Medicine at Inst and Instonians in Medicine" (2010, unpubl.)