James Joseph Magennis VC Frances Elizabeth Clarke Stewart Parker Samuel Beckett Sam Hanna Bell William Carleton John Hewitt Rosamond Praegar Bernard (Barney) Hughes

Professor Sir John Byers (1853 - 1920):
Physician; Irish language promoter


John William Byers was a distinguished physician and medical academic who was also an enthusiastic student and promoter of the Irish language. 

Byers was born in Shanghai, the son of Rev John Byers, a Presbyterian missionary, and the educationalist Margaret Byers, founder and first Headmistress of Victoria College, Belfast. The family returned to Belfast where John attended the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, Queen’s College, Belfast, the London Hospital and the Rotunda, Dublin. He graduated BA with First Class honours in 1874, MA in 1875, MD with First Class honours and BCh with honours in 1878 (all at Queen’s College, Belfast, the awarding institution being the Royal University of Ireland). He held numerous positions including: from 1879-1893 he was physician to Belfast Hospital for Sick Children; he was attending physician, setting up the new gynaecology department, 1883-1900; attending gynaecologist, Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, 1900-1918; and was a member of staff of the Belfast Maternity Hospital, 1902-1920. He was knighted in 1906. Throughout his career he published prolifically, mainly on midwifery, his particular speciality: he was appointed Professor of Midwifery in 1893 at Queen’s College and would occupy this chair until his death twenty-seven years later. 

Byers was keenly interested in Irish folklife, language and archaeology (especially of Belfast) and had an especially close interest in dialect. In his pamphlet The Characteristics of the Ulsterman he explored many legends of the province of Ulster, describing how a great mixture of races resulted from repeated invasions, one sign of this being the name “Ulster” itself which had a mixed linguistic origin: Norse invaders added their suffix to “Uladh”, the Irish for Ulster, to produce “Uladh-ster” which contracted into the present name. Another exposition on Ulster dialects was published as an introduction to a collection of local verses compiled by Samuel McCurry, The Ballads of Ballytumelty. Revised and Enlarged. With an Introduction on the Ulster Dialect by Sir John Byers MA MD. 

Byers, assisted by Samuel Dill, Professor of Greek, campaigned assiduously to have Irish accepted as a matriculation subject in the Queen’s medical faculty. He was a member of the Belfast Literary Society, elected 2 April 1883; he served two sessions as President. His portrait by Henrietta Rae is on display in the Great Hall of Queen's University, Belfast.



Born: 10 November 1853
Died: 20 September 1920
Richard Froggatt
Bibliography:

Roger Blaney: Presbyterians and the Irish Language (Belfast, Ulster Historical Foundation and Ultach Trust, 1996); RSJ Clarke: A Directory of Ulster Doctors (Ulster Historical Foundation, 2013).