Henry MacCormac (1800 - 1886):
Henry MacCormac was born in 1800 in Carnan, County Armagh, the fourth (or fifth; the baptismal records are missing) of the six sons (and two daughters) of John MacCormac (son of Cornelius MacCormac RN) linen merchant, and Mary Hall, daughter of a well-to-do distiller, Colonel Joseph Hall, of Hall Place, Lurgan. Henry’s father died when Henry was a child and the family moved to a comfortable country house, “Fairlawn” near Armagh, then shortly afterwards to Armagh city where Henry is said to have attended The Royal School (although his name does not appear in the admittedly incomplete Register of the Royal School Armagh, 1933). He studied medicine in Dublin, Paris (at L’Hôtel Dieu under the distinguished Guillaume Dupuytren) and then at Edinburgh where he qualified in 1824 with the Licence of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (LRCSEdinb) and MD (Edinburgh University), his doctoral thesis being entitled “De Clavo Secalino”. He then travelled to the Cape of Good Hope seemingly for adventure and broadening of knowledge, and from there, probably by sea rather than overland as some aver, to Sierra Leone to visit an elder brother, John, who was for fifty years (c.1811-1861) a stipendiary magistrate and ultimately chief magistrate and legislator. After about a year which included considerable exploration and several attacks of malaria, Henry returned to Belfast; but he was soon off to North America for some months before finally settling in practice in Belfast in Upper Arthur Street in 1828 on his appointment as visiting physician to the Fifth District of the Belfast Dispensary, the then usual first rung on the ladder for local professional advancement. That same year he was elected on 5 May a member of the Belfast Literary Society and read his inaugural paper “The formation of character” on 1 December which was so impressively received that he was elected President for the 1829-30 session, his President’s Address (6 December 1830) being “The universal method of instruction by Jacotot”. He was appointed Attending Physician to the Belfast Fever Hospital in 1831, a presciently wise appointment as his successful response to the 1832 cholera epidemic would show (see later), and this together with his other interests and commitments prompted his resignation from the Belfast Literary Society in January 1831. On 8 October 1833 he married, in St. Anne’s (Church of Ireland) Church in Belfast, a distant relative, Mary Newsam (1811-1871) and settled in Wellington Place, first (from 1835) in number 17, then (from 1839) in number 8, then after a few years at number 7, Chichester Street they returned (from 1846) to number 3 Wellington Place until their final move in 1870 to Fisherwick Place. They had five children: the eldest, Mary, remained unmarried and died in 1887; (Sir) William (q.v.) eloped with and married Katherine Maria Charters on 30 November 1861, and became a renowned surgeon; John (1846-1906), the African magistrate, married. Lucie Purdon (who died in October 1896 aged 47) and they had in their turn five children; Elizabeth, who married Joshua Dean whose son, Henry Roy Dean, became Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and their grandson, Sir Patrick Dean, was sometime British Ambassador in Washington; and Anne (1839-1871) who in 1862 married Dr Henry Burden senior and their son, Colonel Henry Burden (junior), had a distinguished career in the Indian Medical Service.
In 1830 Asiatic cholera started to spread rapidly west from Asia, the first case in Britain occurring in Sunderland in October 1831. A Board of Health was appointed in Belfast on 22 November which planned to provide a ‘cholera block’ behind the main Fever Hospital building to house fifty patients (built in the former lock-ward house) and additional accommodation was rented in Lancaster Street for isolation of those in contact with cholera cases, cholera then being considered as possibly contagious. Also, two houses in different parts of the town were commandeered as night-stations for the supply of medicines. Doctors MacCormac and Duncan were put in charge and so successfully that when the epidemic was declared to be over, some 3,000 persons out of a Belfast population of some 55,000 had contracted the disease with a mortality of some 16%, noticeably lower than the experience of other comparable cities. MacCormac was given much of the credit both for his efforts on behalf of the sick poor and also for his professional skills which included his prescribing of dilute mineral acids for the patients, and he received a public testimonial of the “high estimation of his unwearied judicious and efficient services as Physician to the Belfast Cholera Hospital during the year 1832”, and a silver tea service of teapot, sugar basin and other pieces all of Dublin Georgian silver by the well-known maker, Richard Sawyer. His reputation was now made.
As a young graduate MacCormac supported the plans promulgated in the eighteen-twenties for a medical school in Belfast to be established jointly between the then Fever Hospital in Frederick Street and the Belfast Academical Institution (‘Royal’ from 1831; and referred to below as RBAI), and took a prominent part in the drawn-out negotiations. He was the successful applicant for the Chair of the “theory and practice of physic” in November 1837, an unusual but expedient arrangement whereby £40 per annum was available from the will of a certain Henry Atkins of Belfast towards a Chair in chemistry provided only that MacCormac was appointed to it whereas Thomas Andrews was already appointed, allowed the executors to exercise their discretion in the matter, and the physic Chair was he chosen solution. The new “professor” was to give four lectures weekly through the six-month winter session as well as additional ad hoc classes, and to the satisfaction of his colleagues MacCormac was elected President (i.e. Dean) of the faculty of medicine for the 1840-1 session and again for the 1846-7 and 1847-8 sessions. When the school of medicine closed on the assumption of RBAI’s role by the new Queen’s College Belfast in September 1849, MacCormac was one of the three professors who was not re-appointed receiving instead a gratuity of £250 being five years’ salary (£50 p.a.) as purchase of his five-year tenured contract; nor was he appointed to the professorship of Medicine in the new Queen’s College Belfast, a constituent College of the new Queen’s University in Ireland, nor to the Chair of Logic and Metaphysics, nor to the Chair of Medicine in the University of Edinburgh in 1855, nor to the Chair of Materia Medica in Queen’s College Belfast in 1857, for all of which he had applied. These failures can be attributed to his personality because whether or not an idea of his was eccentric or inspired, orthodox or heterodox, he would cling to it often with unreasonable stubbornness; and it was this inflexibility rather than any lack of intellectual ability, which was in fact considerable in depth and range, still less his enthusiasm, and least of all his phenomenal industry, which undoubtedly worried boards of appointment. In this respect his approach to the value of fresh air in the treatment of disease and not just of disease of the respiratory system but of other systems as well, and of a means of obtaining and preserving one’s general health, is a case in point. Unmoved by any contrary evidence, the opposition of patients or the concern of colleagues, windows of his wards and of sick-rooms whether institutional or private, were thrown open even in the depth of winter; and if against resistance he was not above breaking the panes with his walking stick or umbrella, a recourse which (it is said) found him at least once before Magistrates. But against all vicissitudes he remained unrepentant especially as regards pulmonary tuberculosis – whose cause, he believed “lay in the continued breathing of air contaminated and exhausted by previous respiration” (Sir William MacCormac; in Belfast Literary Society 1801-1901: Historical Sketch. Belfast: M’Caw, Stevenson & Orr, 1902, p.80) - and he found a ready audience especially in the profession in Europe, his book On the Nature, Treatment and Prevention of Pulmonary Consumption going, with revisions, through three editions (1855, 1865, 1872) and was published also in French, Dutch and German. But in his Etiology of Tubercle, with Comments on Doctor Robert Koch’s Bacillus (1882) he closed his mind to the importance in the disease of Koch’s land-mark demonstration in 1882 of the crucial role played by the tubercle bacillus,, and in doing so forfeited at least some of the credibility he might otherwise have earned for the later widespread practice of open-air sanatoria in the treatment of the disease. If only modestly appreciated in Ireland for his social and medical views and progressive thinking, he was recognised abroad being elected a corresponding member of the National Institution (Washington DC) and similarly by the Royal Academy of Medicine of Belgium; and a street in Copenhagen was named for him.
By now MacCormac was an old man, though a mentally alert one. In 1864 he gave the oration at the hospital which formally opened the winter teaching session, a tradition dating from Dr James McDonnell’s opening lecture in 1827, a tradition which continues to the present day. This was to prove MacCormac’s swansong because in or about 1866 aged 65 he retired from most of his active hospital and domiciliary practice to allow himself time and space to develop his intellectual interests, which were considerable, retaining only his position as visiting physician to the local District Hospital for the Insane (the Lunatic Asylum in Belfast) which he had held with due compassion and skill from 1849 and being credited with the fact that no deaths from cholera had occurred in the Asylum during the serious epidemic of 1848-9. He even wrote a book on his progressive views arguing that insanity was rarely a disease of the brain as such but to factors residing in the mind’s consciousness/unconsciousness (Metanoia: a Plea for the Insane (London, 1861). Always an early riser he did much of his writing long before breakfast. His corpus ranged from text-books, e.g., Methodus Medendi, or The Description and Treatment of the Principal Diseases Incident to the Human Frame (London,1842), to more specialised medical texts not only concerning “consumption” but also on other medical topics, e.g.. An Exposition of the Nature, Treatment and Prevention of Continued Fever (London, 1837), and many on a variety of topics illustrative of his wide range of interest, such as A Treatise on the Cause and Cure of Hesitation and Speech or Stammering (London, 1828), On the Best Means of Improving the Condition of the Working Classes (London,1830), The Philosophy of Human Nature in its Physical, Intellectual and Moral Relations (London, 1837), The Conversation of a Soul with God, a Theodicy (London, 1877), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus...with The Manual of Epictetus (London, 1844), and many other books, articles and pamphlets both professional and covering wider interests.
Despite his leanings to intransigence MacCormac was a kindly and benevolent man who felt for the suffering of the sick which he strove tirelessly to relieve. As his son (Sir William,,op.cit., pp.80-1) has written “He [had] indomitable energy of mind as well as of body….was deeply conversant with the philosophies of ancient and modern times….was master of many languages both European and Oriental and in later years was devoted to the study of comparative philology and a compilation of a dictionary illustrating the subject….a man of great mind and of great heart, great in human sympathy and affection…a profoundly religious man…of gentle, loving disposition …an exemplar of a pure and well spent life”.
Henry MacCormac died on 26 May 1886 aged 86 at his residence, 7 Fisherwick Place, Belfast and is buried in the Belfast City Cemetery. A marble bust of MacCormac by Shakspere Wood (1827-1886) was presented in 1892 by MacCormac’s son, Sir William, and is in the Ulster Museum; and a terracotta head originally in the Whitla Medical Institute is now in the Whitla Medical Building, Medical Biology Centre, Queen’s University, Lisburn Road.
Fraser, Sir Ian, ‘Father and son: A tale of two cities’, Ulster Medical Journal, 37, 1-39 (1968); Clarke, RSJ, A Directory of Ulster Doctors (Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation, 2013, vol. II, pp.661-2); Dictionary of Irish Biography, 2009, vol.5, pp. 862-3 (online http://dib.cambridge.org); Calwell, HG, Andrew Malcolm of Belfast, 1818-1856: Physician and Historian. Belfast: Brough Cox & Dunn, 1977, passim, and especially. p.28, note 11; Belfast Literary Society, 1801-1901: Historical Sketch. (Belfast: McCaw, Stevenson & Orr, 1902, pp.80-1,173); Ferrar, Major ML, Register of The Royal School, Armagh. (Belfast: W & G Baird, 1933); Fisher, JR Robb, JH, Royal Belfast Academical Institution: Centenary Volume, 1810-1910. Belfast: McCaw, Stevenson & Orr, 1913, pps. 83-4; Clarke, RSJ, The Royal Victoria Hospital Belfast: A History, 1797-1997. (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1997, p.282); Allison, R.S., The Seeds of Time, being a short History of the Belfast General and Royal Hospital, 1850/190. (Belfast: Brough, Cox and Dunn, 1972, p.83): Professor Peter Froggatt, ‘The foundation of the “Inst” medical department and its association with the Belfast Fever Hospital’, Ulster Medical Journal, 45, 107—145 (1976); Ibid. ‘The first medical school in Belfast, 1835-1849’, Medical History, 22, 237-266 (1978)
© 2020 Ulster History Circle