Professor David Smyth Torrens (1897 - 1967):
David Smyth Torrens was not just a highly respected academic, and academic administrator, at the University of Dublin, Trinity College, for many years. He was also one of the world’s most distinguished horologists who built up one of the finest private collections of clocks and, especially, had a unique collection of horological tools.
Torrens was the eldest son of a farmer and was born at Carragh Farm, Moneydig, a few miles from Garvagh in County Londonderry. The Torrens line had been present there since moving from Lanarkshire, Scotland, under the auspices of the Ironmongers Livery Company in the Barony of Coleraine. He attended (according to the records, assiduously) the one-roomed Drumeene National School, where he enrolled on May 2, 1902. He later attended Moneydig Public Elementary School October 1908), and like very many rural Presbyterians, his out-of-school life very much revolved around the church, its Sunday services and young people’s organisations (the Golden Star Brigade).
Even when young he displayed a notable mechanical dexterity which he evinced by mending watches and clocks; he was also notably cerebral and was drawn to the intellectual life more than to agriculture. He left school at 15 and worked on the family farm, but his intellectual questing, took him to evening classes in nearby Kilrea, which led to a scholarship to Albert Agricultural College, Glasnevin, Dublin, where he obtained a first class Diploma in Agriculture. In 1920 he obtained an Associateship of the Royal College of Science (ARCSoI). It is widely believed that one of his part-time jobs during his time there led him to spend Easter Week 1916 in Trinity College, Dublin, most likely working in a laboratory.
To that institution he went in 1920 as a demonstrator in physiology; he also studied there part-time graduating with a first class BA in Natural Sciences (B) in 1928, MA 1932, and in 1934 MB BCh BAO. The post of assistant professor of physiology had already been created for him and in February 1936 he was appointed to the chair of physiology and the King’s professorships of the institutes of medicine – only two years after qualifying. He was Dean of the School of Medicine 1950-1959, Vice-dean 1959-1967 and served on many medical bodies throughout the British Isles. He was a member of the Physiological Society of Great Britain and Ireland (and a council member), a member of the Biological Club, and a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Medicine in Ireland. He retired from Trinity College in 1967, at the age of 70, and died later that year.
As a teacher Torrens was first-rate; his knowledge was very thorough – he taught and lectured without reference to any notes or aides-memoires; as one student out it: “precise, lucid, methodological, extremely well-ordered, imparting knowledge rather than encouraging others to seek it.” However, partly due to the small staff in the subject he had a large administrative workload, to which he was moreover not temperamentally well-suited; but also was rather lacking much interest in research, and had only a handful of research students. He published very little; one of his few reports was of some work carried out jointly with Sir Joseph Barcroft, at Cambridge, on foetal heart output in sheep. Barcroft, who knew Torrens through his Son Henry, liked him personally but failed to interest him in experimental physiology. However, the record shows that at age 65, he declined the chance to retire, and remained in post another five years.
However, he had an almost double existence, and his other life was that of an horologist, in which area few in the world could match his knowledge. Horology had always appealed to his mechanically-inclined mind, and after the end of each academic year in Dublin, he would promptly be off to the horological workshops of Prescot and Clerkenwell in England, the ateliers of the Swiss Jura and the cabinotiers of Geneva. There are no league tables for horologists, but his knowledge of horology was held in the highest regard among the fraternity. Moreover, the intricate nature of the craft, which has been compared to Adam Smith’s pin factory where 18 separate stages of the process are required to produce a single pin, and found to be more complicated. Torrens knew the whole process inside out. He was particularly interested in horological tools, and over his life he became recognised as the great living authority in this area of the craft and his private collection of watchmaking tools was the largest and finest in the world. He seemed to have been impelled first by his interest in the fine mechanics of the equipment, by the need study how these fine craftsmen practised their art; second, to preserve as far possible the fine tools of what was a declining craft.
His interest also included books, and his collections of these – like his collection of tools – was almost unknown to those who knew him outside the horological circles which he inhabited; virtually no-one in Trinity College had any idea that his collections were sitting behind his College study. When after his death these collections were removed, they filled ninety chests, and freight costs were found to be paid on ninety tons. The book collection contained rarities, such as the Catalogue of tools for watch and clockmakers by John Wyke of Liverpool, published in the mid-eighteenth century. In the mid-twentieth, only four copies of this horologist’s gem were known to exist. One was in the Winterthur Museum in the United States, another in the British Library. Torrens owned the other two. He also built up an extensive collection of account books and documents from some of the great watchmakers of previous centuries giving fascinating and detailed pictures of the craft and trade.
Since Torrens died very soon after retiring, and since he was by nature a reserved and reticent man, no-one knew what he intended to do with his vast treasure store, though one fellow horologist guessed that it was one of two possibilities. As he had written relatively little on the subject (though more than he wrote on physiology) it was speculated that he intended to write something based on his vast knowledge and material. A technical treatise would have been impossible as his knowledge was indeed so overwhelming that he would never have finished it. Per contra, a history of horology would have been possible and would have been fundamental to the specialism. Torrens died intestate, but a close friend agreed to supervise the dispersal of Torrens’ collections in a way it was felt highly likely he would have approved; items were found homes in Coleraine, Dublin, Prescot, the British Museum and the Guildhall, London.
Torrens’ personal reserve has been noted above; to some it was sufficiently noteworthy to the point of eccentricity, though many who knew him (no-one knew him well) ascribed it to a genuine diffidence (which nevertheless was known to dissipate on a mealtime glass of sherry). One student of Torrens remembers that in four years, Torrens spoke to him once only, and it was a curt reproach, though the student did add that he may well have deserved it. He was materially generous almost to the point of philanthropy, from financial assistance to students, to whom he also acted as honorary medical officer at Trinity before there was a dedicated medical officer; sending food parcels during the war; carrying coal to freezing pensioners. This real innate kindness may or may not have been inspired by his deep and dedicated Christian faith.
In addition to his own articles published over the years in the Horological Journal, he also, wearing his linguist’s hat, worked on translating a leading book, La Montre Suisse of Jaquet and Chapuis.
The great (some say greatest) watchmaker, George Daniels, described his first meeting with Torrens. He described how he would always, when meeting a “reputation”, let it be known that he was in an important presence and out of respect would allow them to take the lead. Torrens was not the man to take the lead and the two sat awkwardly, neither speaking, Torrens whistling unmusically. However, the ice was finally broken, and as Daniels continued:
“In the short time I knew Torrens I learnt more about horology than I had achieved in the preceding five years. He had a marvellous knack of instilling confidence by showing that one already knew the answers to a doubt and had known it all along.”
The editors of a leading horological publication indicated clearly their estimation of Torrens when in March 2012 they printed this reminiscence under the title, “A Meeting of Two Horological Titans”.
Sir Peter Froggatt was a prize-winning medical student of Torrens and adds the following personal reminiscence:
Torrens was well-known to College residents if only by sight, He lived alone in one of the more spacious sets of rooms in 36, New Square, first floor, and shopped for food in the College "Co-Op" at 10, Front Square. He was of unprepossessing appearance: short of stature, bespectacled with more than just something of a seaman’s gait, he had simianesque features with protuberant ears, coarse skin flawed further with prominent naevi (lesions), hands invariably sunk deep in trouser pockets, his out-size robust ‘sensible’ shoes a constant feature whatever the weather, and only an occasional shy smile of recognition, at least to students. On social occasions he was cripplingly shy and ill-at-ease though he was relaxed and often assertive when teaching; “a man of strange moods and obscure grievances” according to one of his College colleagues. He was unquestionably a devoted teacher, most successful with undergraduates due to his quiet yet dogmatic style. Didactic, he did not welcome controversy and could become irritated when pressed on even minor factual points after a lecture. Keen to impart, adept at imprinting knowledge, and content with relaying rather than advancing it, he never tried to encourage in his students a sense of excitement in its pursuit: like a modern Dickensian Gradgrind, facts were to him the all-important ingredient of life. He had much of the make-up of the narrow pedagogue: he liked his notes and lectures reproduced in examination scripts; and his beautiful writing with blackboard chalk certainly made their compilation easy for the student. Kind, even generous, to ‘deserving’ students he could (as I know!) be rather less than that with those he considered otherwise; but his many acts of generosity overcame any rare perceived pettiness with those for whom he had “an obscure grievance”.
|Born:||9 September 1897|
|Died:||24 November 1967|
Professor Sir Peter Froggatt
Peter Froggatt & Alun C Davies: “David Smyth Torrens: Physiologist and horologist”, Hermathena CXL Summer 1986 [plus biographical note, Hermathena CXLVI, Summer 1989]; Peter Froggatt: “David Smyth Torrens and Sir William Wilde: Two Irish Medical Polymaths”, Second Torrens Memorial Lecture, NUU, Coleraine, 23.4.1982 and “David Smyth Torrens – A Leonard Abrahamson Dublin Contemporary”, Journal of the Irish Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons, July 1987; Antiquarian Horology, March 2012, pp 5-6; personal knowledge; private information
© 2021 Ulster History Circle