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

Thomas Gillman Moorhead (1878 - 1960):
Physician, academic

Thomas Gillman Moorhead, of the distinguished Ulster medical family, was not only one of the leading figures in Irish Medicine in the earlier twentieth century, but one many of whose achievements were in spite of the freak misfortune of a serious disability.

Moorhead was born in Benburb, County Tyrone, second son of Dr William Robert Moorhead and Amelia Davis Moorhead (née Gillman) of Oakmount, County Cork. In or around 1880 the family moved to Bray, where Thomas attended Aravon School, from where he proceeded to the University of Dublin (TCD) in 1895. He graduated MB BCh BAO in 1901, proceeded MD in 1902 and was briefly Assistant Visiting Physician at Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital, Dublin. He studied further at various locations in mainland Europe, including Vienna, and on return to Dublin he became Visiting Physician to the Royal City of Dublin in Baggot Street (1903). He established tutorial classes in his home at 23 Upper Fitzwilliam Street and with some colleagues “taught every subject from biology and physiology to materia medica and internal medicine”; these classes were an immediate success. He took the Membership of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland examinations in 1905, the year he published his first book, Surface Anatomy. In 1906 he was elected to the Fellowship of the College. Professional success came quickly: his consultant practice with his connections to Sir Patrick Dun’s and Baggot Street Hospitals, his wide knowledge and his care and attention to the needs of patients, all contributed to his success.

In 1915 he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) in the rank of captain and was assigned to hospitals for European and ANZAC troops in Alexandria and Gallipoli. On leave in Dublin in 1916 he accepted the post of Professor of Medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland which had been vacated by Sir William Moore that year, but on return to France, now in the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, he had second thoughts and resigned on 6 June 1917, possibly because of the additional demands on his professional time, possibly because his institutional ambitions lay with TCD; indeed he was appointed King’s Professor of Materia Medica and Pharmacy at TCD in 1921, and in 1925 was appointed Regius Professor of Physic, a position he held until 1956.

Moorhead prepared carefully for the Regius Chair. He updated his knowledge with an extensive trip to North America in 1925, visiting leading “centres of excellence” (especially New York, Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago, Rochester, Toronto, and Montreal) and on return to Dublin he was rightly regarded as one of the most accomplished physicians in Dublin, in demand also for his management and committee skills and eminent good sense.

Tragedy now struck, in Euston Station, London, in July 1926. A keen member of the British Medical Association (BMA; he would later be its President), he was en route to a BMA meeting in London when, stepping down from the train, he lost his footing, falling head-first onto the platform. As a result he lost all sight in both eyes through complete bilateral retinal detachment; he was never to regain his sight. Characteristically he displayed great courage in facing the future. Clinical work was necessarily curtailed though he still undertook certain consultations with the help of colleagues. Increasingly however he devoted his time to teaching, committee work, examining and advising. (The present writer was examined by Moorhead in the clinical examination in final MB, Medicine, and felt humbled by the skill and accuracy of Moorhead’s examination without sight as compared to his own efforts with all faculties at his disposal.) Moorhead was particularly proud of his Address, as President of the BMA, at its 101st Annual Meeting in Dublin in July 1933, entitled “The Work of the Association in Ireland”, to a large audience in the Great Hall of the Royal Dublin Society. A knowledgeable witness wrote:

A totally blind man stood alone on the platform addressing a crowded assembly... I was amazed at his courage and his triumphant disregard of his disability... His Address was masterly and inspiring, and I well remember the pride I felt in my fellow-countryman.

Moorhead continued to work as best he could for some time but eventually ill health necessitated his giving up most of his residual commitments. His wife died in 1935 and in 1938 he married Sheila Gwynn, daughter of Stephen Lucius Gwynn at Brompton Oratory. The Best Man was a nephew, Dr Charles Moorhead.

He suffered much pain and depression in his declining years. His passing fell on 3 August 1960; he was interred in Dean’s Grange Cemetery. There were no children from either of his marriages.

As well his distinctions mentioned above, Moorhead was Consulting Physician to the Army in Ireland; an honorary Fellow of TCD (1 October 1956); Doctor of Laws (honoris causa) of the National University of Ireland and also of The Queen’s University of Belfast.

Born: 15 October 1878
Died: 3 August 1960
Peter Froggatt

JB Lyons: A Pride of Professors: The Professors of Medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland 1813-1985 (Dublin, A&A Farmer, 1999, ch 10, pp 209-221, including a comprehensive list of source material); Dictionary of Irish Biography, vol 6 pp 665-666 (Royal Irish Academy, 2009),; personal knowledge