Robert Foster Kennedy (1884 - 1952):
Robert Foster Kennedy was an outstanding and pioneer neurologist, Ulster-born and -trained.
Kennedy (hereinafter RFK) was born on 7 February 1884, youngest of the five children of William Archer Kennedy, of “Mount Eden”, Upper Shankhill Road, Belfast, a “Factory Manager” in the linen industry, and Hessie née Dill, daughter of Robert Foster Dill, Professor of Midwifery at Queen’s College, Belfast (QCB), 1868-1893, and Belfast City Coroner, 1869-1893. The Dills were an influential family in Ulster whose extensive membership included inter alios Sir Samuel Dill, Professor of Greek at QCB and at the succeeding Queen’s University of Belfast (QUB), 1890-1923; Field Marshall Sir John Greer Dill, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, April 1940-November 1941, when he was forced into retirement, mainly through ill health, aged 60, dying on 4 November 1944 in Washington DC and, almost uniquely for a non-USA serviceman, was buried in Arlington National Cemetery; and another Robert Foster Dill (not to be confused with RFK’s maternal grandfather), a former Scholar of Lincoln College, Oxford, who was headmaster of the Royal School Dungannon (1892-1911) and later of Foyle College, Londonderry. Shortly after his birth, RFK with his mother, father and siblings went to Częstochowa in Poland after his father accepted a managerial post there as manager of a linen firm. However, within a few months RFK’s mother, Hessie, died of scarlet fever aged 34. William Archer Kennedy decided to remain in Poland and he sent the children back to Ulster where the older ones went to boarding school and the younger ones went to live with relatives. RFK was still an infant and he was sent to his late mother’s parents in their Victorian house at 3, Fisherwick Place in the centre of Belfast where, his grandmother having soon died, he was in the care of Professor Dill’s two unmarried daughters who lived on the premises, Jin and Kate. In 1893 the widower Professor died, the house was sold, and Jin and Kate with the now nine-year-old RFK moved to Bangor, County Down and the following year, when RFK was ten, he was sent to board at the Royal School Dungannon, County Tyrone, (where conveniently, and not coincidentally, another member of the Dill clan, Robert Foster Dill, was Headmaster), RFK spending the vacations with Jin and Kate in Bangor. In 1901, aged seventeen, he irrevocably decided to become a doctor despite the counter-appeals of the stage, and he enrolled at QCB that year and graduated MB, BCh at the Royal University of Ireland (RUI) in October 1906.
He at once sought an appointment at the National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic, in Queen Square, London (now known as the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, Queen Square), now as then the Mecca for aspiring neurologists. He impressed, among others, the influential London grandees, Sir James Purves-Stewart and Sir Victor Horsley, and so obtained a resident house appointment being by Christmas (1906) installed as Resident Medical Officer. He held this post until 1909 when he was invited by its founding fathers (Pearce Bailey, Joseph Collins and Joseph Fraenkel), who had been impressed by some of his publications on syringomelia and also by the tongue of good report, to accept the post of Chief of Clinic in the new (three-month-old) Neurological Institute in New York’s East 67 Street, surprisingly the only neurological centre of any kind in the United States at the time. He at once accepted, and for the rest of his career he became based in New York and orientated to the United States more widely, and he rarely visited Britain let alone Ulster except for professional reasons.
In September 1911, less than 18 months after arriving in New York, he published the paper which would be the basis of what became known as “The Foster Kennedy Syndrome” (“Retrobulbar neuritis as an exact diagnostic sign of certain tumours and abscesses in the frontal lobe”). His fame was now assured and was immediately endorsed by Sir William Gowers, father of English neurology, who described this paper as the “first extensive and thorough account was made [of the syndrome] by Foster Kennedy”, and the eponym “Foster Kennedy Syndrome” is now widely accepted, and Foster Kennedy is the only Ulster doctor to have been eponymously recognised in the naming of a clinical condition (though another Ulster doctor, Ashton Morrison, was part-named for the “Verner-Morrison Syndrome” based on work reported in 1958).
In 1914, on the declaration of war, RFK, now married and living in New York, volunteered for a six-month tour of duty overseas, and in the spring of 1915 he was approached by Harold J Reckitt, an English Quaker and a former Member of Parliament and now a wealthy American philanthropist, and a Lady Johnstone, to help to set up a small tent-hospital in France, to which RFK agreed. He was commissioned a lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and arrived in France in the early summer of 1915. After many administrative matters were finally overcome, his group was offered a suitable building in the village of Ris-Orange near Paris and work on conversion was started. Ultimately it became the Johnstone-Reckitt Military Hospital V.R. 76, with RFK as “commandant and executive head”. When the six-month period of his voluntary service terminated in the autumn of 1915 he returned to USA; but he later decided that he should return to France where his skills were badly needed, and he volunteered for a further six-month period, in the event staying in France throughout the rest of the war. He was given many assignments mostly with general field forces although from June 1917 he dealt only with neurological cases, which had been his original ambition. As such he was attached to the Harvard Surgical Unit under Harvey Cushing with which he remained until the end of the war.
Finally discharged with the rank of captain, on return to the USA he and his family lived in Sutton Square, New York, and in 1919 he was appointed Professor of Neurology at Cornell University and head of the neurological service at Bellevue Hospital in succession to Charles Dana. The rest of his career was to be more or less confined to the USA and was one of continued success in professional, personal and public life. He got to know, and also to attend professionally, many of the country’s great and good, best described by his eldest daughter, Isabel Kennedy Butterfield (wife of Sir John, later Lord, Butterfield, formerly Regius Professor of Physic, 1976-1987, and Master of Downing College. 1978-1987, at the University of Cambridge) in a limited edition publication (1980) based mainly on her father’s collected letters. In 1939, however, intermittent ill-health compelled RFK to move from centre-stage to the wings; but he continued to practice and to publish (21 of his more than 100 medical papers were published after a massive nasal haemorrhage led to the tying of his right external carotid artery) and he continued as best he could to attend patients at his beloved Bellevue Hospital in New York. In 1951, however, he became terminally ill with polyarteritis nodosa, and in January 1952 he was admitted to his former ward at Bellevue where he died on 7 January from an intestinal haemorrhage and was buried at Pendleton Hill, Rhode Island, beside the little church where he and his second wife had been married.
He received many honours and awards. In 1910, four years after his primary graduation, he obtained the MD of QUB “with high commendation”, and in 1951 was honoured with the Doctor of Science (honoris causa) degree, again of QUB. In 1916 he was awarded the Military Cross (MC) by the British and, by the French, was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur; and in 1930 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (FRS Edinb). He married, firstly, Isabel McCann from a well-known Belfast whiskey merchandising family, whom he had first met while as a young man he was living in Bangor with his aunts, and they were married in September 1912 in the country house of Charles Adams and Eleanor Platt in Cornish, New Hampshire. They had two daughters the elder of whom was Isabel. They divorced in 1938 and he married (in 1940) Katherine Caragol y San Abria, a young medical student, and they had a daughter, Hessie (b. 1943) called after his mother.
RFK had an impressive personality as well as profound neurological skills. Tall, handsome and of a gregarious disposition he had, from adolescence, theatrical aspirations and interests which he never lost. He was charismatic and completely at ease in the USA. He loved New York and was on excellent terms with the American great and good. His visits beyond its shores were rare and, apart from his involvement in Europe in World War I, were mainly for professional purposes, an exception being his visit to QUB in 1951 (to receive his honorary Doctorate) when he dined with the late Sydney Allison, senior Ulster neurologist, and other colleagues, and Allison left a lengthy note of the visit which is now buried in the Vice-Chancellor’s files! In 1986, and after two visits by the present writer to see RFK’s eldest daughter, Isabel Butterfield, she presented QUB with her late father’s consulting chair from Bellevue Hospital and which had also been used by her grandfather, Professor RF Dill, in his consulting rooms at 3, Fisherwick Place, which had also been his residence, all those years before. The chair was lodged in the appropriate department in the joint QUB/Eastern Area Health Board rooms in Belfast, a coveted memorabilium.
As a postscript, one incident in Foster Kennedy’s career which received much publicity in the United Kingdom, involved Winston Churchill. In December 1931 Churchill was in New York and at that time was at the nadir of his political fortunes: he had been out of office for four years and, as Margot Asquith allegedly, but fittingly quipped, “Winston’s future lay behind him”. One day while crossing Fifth Avenue on foot, Churchill was knocked down by a private car travelling at 30-35 mph. (not a taxi as is generally stated), and he was thrown to the ground cracking two ribs and receiving a severe scalp wound. He was taken to Lennox Hill Hospital where he was examined by RFK who assured him that there had been no serious damage but that he was, understandably, severely shaken and a few days rest would be in order. That satisfied Churchill; his robust physique and indomitable will had saved him again, and thereafter he and RFK kept in friendly correspondence for some ten years when the burdens of duty constrained Churchill’s time.
|Born:||7 February 1884|
|Died:||7 January 1952|
Apart from the present writer’s personal knowledge all the information contained in the above entry can be obtained from The Making of a Neurologist: the Letters of Foster Kennedy MD, FRS.Edin., 1884-1952, to his Wife. Edited with a memoir by Isabel Kennedy Butterfield, with a Preface by Sir Roger Bannister CBE, DM (Oxon), FRCP. Printed in Great Britain by The Stellar Press, Hatfield, Hertfordshire. Copyright, Isabel Kennedy Butterfield, 1981. Privately published. More accessible, but limited, biographical material is in the obituary notices in The British Medical Journal, 1952, 1: 165-6, 223-34; and the American Journal of Psychotherapy, 1952, 6: 121; “Retrobulbar neuritis as an exact diagnostic sign of certain tumours and abscesses in the frontal lobe”, in: American Journal of Medical Sciences, 162:355-368 (1911)
© 2022 Ulster History Circle