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Richard Purefoy (1847 - 1919)

Purefoy was an alumnus of one of Ulster’s most venerable and distinguished schools, who went on to become, over a distinguished career, one of Ireland’s leading practitioners in Obstetrics and Gynaecology. 

Richard Dancer Purefoy was of a Tipperary family; he was born in Cloughjordan in that county, fourth son of Dr Thomas Purefoy and Alla Maria Purefoy, daughter of Dr Thomas Dancer of Hilton in the county. Richard was educated for a time at Bective College, Dublin, but latterly boarded at The Royal and Prior School, Raphoe, County Donegal, one of the five Royal Schools in Ulster founded by Royal Charter of King James I in 1608. After Raphoe, in 1867 he entered Trinity College, Dublin winning a Junior Moderatorship in Natural Sciences. He graduated BA in 1871 and that year also obtained the Licentiate in Surgery. In 1872 he progressed MA of Trinity and gained the Licentiate of Apothecaries Hall; in 1875 he was admitted Licentiate of Surgeons in Ireland and took the Fellowship of that College in 1879. Further academic and professional distinctions were the Licentiate of the King and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland in 1885; Doctor of Medicine of Trinity in 1892; and the Doctor of Laws honoris causa of Trinity in 1912 to recognise his election as President of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, a post he held until 1914. 

His first appointment after his graduation in 1872 was as house surgeon at St Mark’s Ophthalmic Hospital, followed by Assistant Master at the Coombe Hospital, followed by Assistant Master, and later Master, at the Rotunda Hospital. He proved to be an active and modernising leader and administrator: he expanded the extern maternity department; developed the outpatient department, which allowed inter alia gynaecological patients to be fully treated when otherwise they would be sent to general hospitals; and he founded and equipped the first pathological laboratory in the hospital (1987). Many of these developments he financed at his personal expense, augmented by such sources as “Lucina Bazaars”. He was one (of three) former Masters to administer the Rotunda in the  absence of the incumbent Master, Henry Jellett, who spent the years 1914-1917 as commandant of the Munster Ambulance Corps (his service was distinguished, he was much decorated and resumed his post in 1917). 

Purefoy served as obstetrical surgeon to the Adelaide Hospital from 1875 until 1895, was appointed lecturer in materia medica at the Ledwich School of Medicine, Dublin in 1879, all the while authoring articles in professional journals. From 1915 until 1918 he was President of the Royal Academy of Medicine, Ireland; he was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, London; a Member of the Royal Irish Academy; and a foundation member of the Georgian Society in Dublin. 

Along with this long list of professional and academic achievements went a gracious and courtly manner which with a fine baritone voice, ensured him invitations to many social occasions. While still a student at Trinity he had won a musical Exhibition Prize and was a frequent participant at musical events. From 1918 until 1919 he was President of the Hibernian Catch Club, a musical society founded in the seventeenth century and said to be the oldest such in existence; he was a prominent Freemason; a member of the Order of Friendly Brothers of St Patrick; and he was active in Church of Ireland affairs. More privately he was a collector of paintings, china and furniture. 

Oliver St John Gogarty, the celebrated Dublin poet and writer (amongst other distinctions), was also a Trinity College-trained doctor, specifically a surgeon. He remembered Purefoy’s sympathetic manner, his generous examination marking, and not least “his tall hat, which they say he wears while operating.” 

Purefoy never married. He died at 62 Merrion Square, where he had mostly lived. A plaque dedicated to him is in St Anne’s Church of Ireland Church, Dawson Street, Dublin.

Born: 4 August 1847
Died: 27 June 1919
Peter Froggatt

RSJ Clarke: A Directory of Irish Doctors (who qualified before 1901), Ulster Historical Foundation, 2003; JB Lyons: An Assembly of Irish Surgeons, Glendale Press, Dublin, 1984; Dictionary of Irish Biography, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, 2009; Oliver St John Gogarty: Tumbling in the Hay, 1939