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Samuel Simms (1896 - 1967):
Physician; local historian; bibliophile

Samuel Simms was born on 16 February 1896 (not “1894/1895” as usually given) at 2 Parkmount Villas in the Castleton area of Belfast, to Rev. Samuel Simms, Minister of Bethany Presbyterian Church in Agnes Street, and Emma Boseley Simms (formerly Graham).  He entered the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (RBAI) in 1907 aged eleven after which he enrolled at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) in 1914 to study medicine.  He had a promising undergraduate career being appointed a ‘student demonstrator’ (with £25 honorarium) for each of his first four years and winning a scholarship worth £30 on his results in the subjects of anatomy and physiology in the Second Medical Examination in June 1916, and graduated MB, BCh, BAO (QUB) in 1919 with First Class Honours. The following year he took a BSc in pathology and bacteriology (QUB), again with First Class Honours, and also a Diploma in Public Health (DPH), and was awarded a research scholarship which took him to the Department of Chemical Pathology in the Institute of Pathology and Research at St. Mary’s Hospital, London. His work there led to his thesis “The renal functions in nephritis” for which he was awarded, in 1921, an MD (QUB) with Gold Medal. He was also for at least part of the time a research house physician at the West London Hospital. Also, after the success of his thesis he was awarded by QUB a Mackay Wilson Travelling Scholarship which took him to Vienna and the Rockefeller Medical Institute in New York, and elsewhere. On return to Belfast, Simms started in practice from his family home at 22 Oldpark Crescent (later the address was changed to 54 Oldpark Road) but he himself lived on the Antrim Road at the corner of Baltic Avenue but in 1939 or 1940 he moved further up the Antrim Road to number 618 thus separating home from surgery, which he would continue to do for the rest of his career. He was soon appointed to the visiting staff of the Ulster Hospital for Children and Women, then in Templemore Avenue and soon to be renamed The Ulster Hospital, first as assistant medical registrar and then, from 1924, as consultant in general medicine, a post he held until his retirement in 1961. He was also for a time a medical registrar at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast (RVH) and at varying times was Medical Officer to the Post Office and to the Belfast Fire Brigade and, from 1940, Deputy Coroner for Belfast and all while he ran a practice from 54 Oldpark Road.  In 1928 he became, by examination, a Member of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland (MRCPI), and was elected a Fellow (FRCPI) in 1944. On 30 December 1929 he married Violet Alexandra Carmichael (“spinster”) of Holywood Road, Belfast, at “Ben Vista”, Antrim Road, Belfast, by Special Licence “according to the Form and Disciplines of the Presbyterian Church”. 

Despite his busy professional life Simms found time to develop his other interests (which one suspects may have been his major ones) which were mainly centred on early Ulster (especially Belfast) history and on which he wrote prolifically, mainly articles and pamphlets but even books, and he also compiled bibliographies on the Orange Order and the United Irishmen. He also collected books and other written material most but not all of which were pertinent to his central interests and ultimately numbering over 6000 items and which QUB subsequently purchased in phases starting in 1960 and which now form the Simms Special Collection. In his own interpretation he was returning to the earlier Belfast tradition of the physician who was also a man of culture and with an interest in the roots of that society  and in its prominent individuals: as he wrote in introducing his paper “Brief sketches of some forty authors of Belfast birth” which he read before the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society ( BNHPS), of which he was a member, on 24 January 1933, “I intend to bring to your notice the often forgotten fact that this city had been the birthplace of many distinguished in letters….[although] the industrial and commercial supremacy [of Belfast] is well-known and the sciences have not been neglected…”. Characteristically, and as a member of the Ulster Medical Society, he contributed to three of the first four issues of their journal (Ulster Medical Journal) articles which dealt with early Ulster medical men, viz. James McDonnell (18th and 19th centuries – UMJ, 1:34-38), “Old” Ulster physicians (18th century – UMJ, 2:62-65), and Nial O’Glacan of Donegal (17th century – UMJ, 4:186-189); and characteristically also he completed his paper to the BNHPS, noted above, with “We have here as comprehensive a selection of literary authors which I venture to affirm is unequalled by any other city of its size in Great Britain…”.  However, not all his historical interest was centred on Ulster.  He was also a member of the Belfast Literary Society (from 1 April 1930) and read two papers before it: the first (on 3 January 1944) was entitled “Thomas Moore” (presumably the Irish writer, musician and political satirist), and the second, which was his Presidential Address (on 6 November 1950) and which was entitled “An introduction to Greek medical literature”. It is easy to see his attraction to the latter; less obvious to the former until one grasps the range of his Irish cultural interests which included music as well as literature and medicine and he had more than a sneaking regard for those, like Thomas Moore, who flirted with United Irishmen sympathies, and it must be relevant that together with Gerald Morrow and Denis Ireland he founded and edited The Ulsterman periodical, the title borrowed from a newspaper first issued in November 1852 but later defunct. This “second” Ulsterman was even less successful and ran only for four monthly issues, from May until August 1933! 

In 1961 and now aged 65, Simms, always childless, retired from his professional responsibilities and was faced with the question of what to do with his considerable library of well in excess of 6000 titles. In 1960 QUB, with generous help from philanthropic bodies, had purchased for its Hibernica collection, Simms’s collection of foreign books relating to Ireland and other works with an Irish interest including those written by Irish people overseas. Subsequently the university, again with grant-aid, purchased his collection of early medical works and books on medical history; altogether the total was in excess of 5,000 titles. Samuel Simms died on 28 February 1967 at his home, 618 Antrim Road, aged seventy-two. On 17 February just two weeks before he died he had read a paper “A critical bibliography of the United Irishmen (1791-1798)” to a meeting of the Ulster Society for Irish Historical Studies; it was a fitting final curtain to his remarkable extra-professional career. It is now appropriately lodged in the Simms Special Collection of the McClay Library at The Queen’s University of Belfast.

Born: 16 February 1896
Died: 28 February 1967
Peter Froggatt

Norman McNeilly: “Dr. Samuel Simms, 1894-1967”, in Selection from 150 years of Proceedings, 1831-1981 (Belfast: Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, 1981, pp 211-212); “Samuel Simms”, in Dictionary of Irish Biography, 2009, vol 9, p 953 and; The Medical Directory, 1960;  Minutes of the Faculty of Medicine, The Queen’s University of Belfast, 6 October 1916, 1 November 1917, 24 June 1919, and elsewhere; Minutes of the Senate of The Queen’s University of Belfast, 1914-1918; Standard histories of the Voluntary Hospitals in Belfast, especially Kathleen NM Kelly: The Story of the Ulster Hospital, Part 2, 1952-1973, Appendix IV, pp 86, 94, 100, and elsewhere; CJH Logan: The Ulster Hospital at Dundonald (privately printed, 2001, pp 74-5, and elsewhere);  Joseph R Fisher and John H Robb: Royal Belfast Academical Institution: Centenary Volume, 1810-1910 (Belfast: McCaw, Stevenson & Orr, Ltd, 1913, p 324); Obituary notices in Belfast Newsletter, The Irish Times and elsewhere; relevant information also in An Irishman’s Diary, in The Irish Times for Wednesday 8 March 1967.