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Sir William Whitla (1851 - 1933):
Physician; philanthropist; writer

Sir William Whitla

Sir William Whitla was one of the most significant figures in Ulster medicine of any era, with an outstanding career, and a legacy which was quite considerable. No consideration of the history of Ulster medicine, nor of Queen’s University, Belfast, can fail to accord him considerable importance and these were the areas of only two of his distinguished achievements. One modern-day successor put it quite succinctly, describing him as “a towering medical presence”. 

Whitla was born in Monaghan town in south central Ulster. His paternal family line can be traced back to one John Whitly (1680 – 1721) from Drumnahuncheon, a townland between Richhill, in the neighbouring County Armagh, and Kilmoe in the same county. Sir William’s father was Robert, who spelled his family name Whitlaw, and who moved to Monaghan where he married a local girl, Anne Williams. Robert then changed the name (or at least the spelling) to Whitla, allegedly in the wake of a family feud. 

William was educated at the Model School in Monaghan, and, after a brief spell working for his chemist brother James in the town, he moved to Belfast to the work in Messrs Wheeler and Whittaker, dispensing chemists, at 37 High Street. He studied medicine at Queen's College Belfast and in Dublin and Edinburgh, after which he joined the staff of the Belfast General Hospital, Frederick Street, Belfast (which received the Royal Charter in 1875) as Resident Medical Officer, for one year. He spent some time in St. Thomas' Hospital, London, where in 1876 he married Miss Ada Bourne. Between 1877 and 1882, when he became a consultant physician, he was Assistant Physician to the Belfast Charitable Society. About this time he took up an honorary appointment to the Belfast Hospital for Women and Children. 

In 1882 he was appointed Physician to the Belfast Royal Hospital in Frederick Street where he was to remain a visiting member of the staff, and later of the Royal Victoria Hospital, until 1918. In 1890 Whitla was appointed Professor of Materia Medica at Queen's College, Belfast. He built an international reputation on several remarkably successful textbooks, including Elements of Pharmacy, Materia Medica and Treatment (1882) and A Dictionary of Treatment (1892), which were translated into many languages, including Chinese. The income from these, from his private practice and from private sources made him in his time probably one of the wealthiest professors on the staff; and much of his wealth and other assets he would eventually bequeath to Queen's University though a number of bodies would eventually benefit from his considerable largesse. In 1909 was elected President of the British Medical Association having already been knighted in 1902 for distinction as author and doctor - this double distinction is relatively rare and Whitla was very proud of it. As Pro-Chancellor of Queen's he represented the University in Parliament from 1918 to 1922.

From 1884 to 1906 he lived and practised at 8 College Square North, moving in that year to Lennoxvale, while retaining the professional house in College Square. He was appointed honorary physician to the King in Ireland in 1919. During his life his gifts to his profession included the Good Samaritan stained glass window in the Royal Hospital, and a building for the Ulster Medical Society. This society had in Whitla a most enthusiastic member, who was selected as Honorary Secretary in 1876, Honorary Treasurer in 1883, and twice President (1883 and 1901). The Society had at the beginning of the twentieth century no permanent base, usually renting rooms for meetings at 6, College Square North. At the turn of the century, the Royal Belfast Academical Institution was deeply in debt and resolved to lease some of their prime lands, which were located on College Square (hence the name of the square) and in 1900 they surrendered one of their resplendent front lawns for the new Municipal Technical Institute (this decision was later heavily criticised by the prominent architectural historian CEB Brett (“deplorable siting...egregious town planning...ornate cuckoo’s egg” were some of his choice epithets). At the rear of the RBAI campus, on College Square North, was a smaller site which had been occupied by the Institution’s swimming pool, but this was demolished in 1901, and Whitla, keen to find a permanent base for the Medical Society considered that the vacant site would be ideal for a new building for the Society. The site was duly rented (at £60 per year); Whitla himself financed the construction (by WJ Fennell) of an impressive three-storey building whose foundation stone was laid in April 1902 (by Dr Peter Redfern) and the opening ceremony, at which the guest of honour was the Earl of Dudley, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, took place on 21 November the same year. 

Whitla, who was very particular about many details of design and aesthetic appearance, also provided an impressive collection of busts and oils; had stained-glass windows installed, including one dedicated to Dr William Smyth of Donegal who had died the previous year of typhus contracted in the course of one of his more hazardous medical duties. Whitla also lent four terracotta busts of eminent medical figures all with Ulster connections: Henry MacCormac, Peter Redfern, Thomas Andrews and Alexander Gordon. One source estimates that Whitla personally provided the sum of £8,000, covering all building costs including internal equipments and furnishings – even a billiards table was furnished. The building was named simply “Medical Institute”; on Whitla’s death it would be renamed “Whitla Medical Institute” in his memory. The Institute later was moved to Queen’s University, reflecting the development of Belfast, especially Queen’s having become more and more significant as a medical centre, though there also had been some problems with the fabric of the building (such as falling ceiling plaster, which it was feared might not miss someone’s head the next time). The building was sold to the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, which demolished it in 1990 during major redevelopment of its site, though the ogrish Municipal Technical College building remained despite being effectively derelict (August 2013). 

Whitla’s legacies to Ulster were certainly considerable. The Whitla Hall in Methodist College, Belfast, one of the leading secondary-level schools in the British Isles, was named for him, Whitla having been a governor of the school, appointed in 1906, remaining until his death in 1933, as well as a generous benefactor. Whitla, a very committed Methodist, was a rather proactive governor, to whose influence is attributed an emphasis on technical subjects in the school syllabus; he played a central rôle also in the development of the material fabric of the school apart from the hall bearing his name. Whitla’s considerable wealth enabled him to bequeath some £10,000 without duty for a chapel, or a library or a hall, the latter of which was chosen. The centenary history of Methodist College wrote of him that he “on countless occasions exercised paramount influence on the affairs of the College.” 

Just across the road, at Queen’s University, is another Whitla Hall, similarly provided for by Whitla to the amount of £35,000; its foundation stone was laid in 1939; the hall was completed in 1942, requisitioned by the government during the Second World War, and officially opened on 19 February, 1949. This resplendent hall, known to many generations of graduands to have been presented their degrees there, contains the Mitchell organ, formerly located in the University’s Great Hall, and can accommodate some 1500 of an audience; many of the collecting their degree parchments would have in fact written their examination papers in the spacious, well-lit hall. As an arts venue, it has for example been a stalwart of the Queen’s University Festival (latterly the Belfast Festival at Queen’s), hosting the Royal Shakespeare Company for many years on their annual visit to the Festival, as well as the Ulster Orchestra and visiting ensembles, not to mention individual artists of the highest distinction such as Sir Yehudi Menuhin, the violinist (who expressed his admiration for the hall), John Lill, the pianist, and the Beaux Arts Trio of New York. There is an external bust in bronze of Whitla, by Gilbert Bayes, the famous London sculptor; Bayes also created the carved stonework, working with Morris Harding, the English-born sculptor who later settled in Holywood, County Down and lived out his life in Ulster. 

On his death Whitla bequeathed his house in Lennoxvale to Queen’s University as a residence for the Vice-Chancellor. Situated at the end of a cul-de-sac, some 10 minutes’ walk from the University, this 30-roomed residence enjoys grounds most of which are not visible from any public road, so that the resplendence of house and garden are relatively little known to the public, despite the proximity to the University. It had originally been built in 1876 for John Ward, the artist, numismatist and Egyptologist. Whitla acquired the house from Ward in 1906. The grounds contain a summer house where Whitla would retire in search of a quiet place to study; an orchard; and two lakes at which were originally the Strand Mill dam (in modern terms, Stranmillis) and were part of the municipal water supply to Belfast, constructed by the Belfast Charitable Society in 1808. The house was extended in 1976-7 by the addition of a second staircase and two bathrooms. The grounds also contain some carved stonework from the Hamilton Tower which used to stand at the main gate of the university (it was demolished in 1922), and an ornate fountainhead featuring the Imperial Austrian coat of arms, which Whitla acquired on one of his many European trips, and which later served as a birdbath.

Another acquisition of Whitla’s was a large sculpture of Galileo, executed by Pio Fedi, the outstanding nineteenth-century sculptor, whose Rape of Polyxena is in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence. Whitla obtained it in Italy but back in Belfast it turned out to be too large for his house, so was installed in the garden. In 1915 he presented it to the Ulster Medical Society who also found it oversized and passed it to the Belfast Central Library, which passed it on in turn to the Ulster Museum, which rid itself of it to Queen’s University which installed it in the foyer of the Medical Biology Centre in 1980. But later it moved again, to the main entrance hall in the University’s Lanyon building. 

Whitla’s writing was not limited to the field of medicine. A very religious (Methodist) man, after his retirement in 1919 he set himself to have republished an exegesis by Isaac Newton, Observations upon the prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St John from 1733. Whitla contributed an Introductory upon the Nature and cause of Unbelief of Miracles and Prophecy, as well as all the publishing costs. The work was indeed published in 1922 by John Murray of London, with Whitla’s dedication of it to General Booth of the Salvation Army. It had a mixed critical welcome; though sales were rather off the best-sellers list, it nevertheless remained in print until the 1940s, and in the internet age copies are not difficult to find. In fact his religious outlook was even discernible in some of his medical publications. Away from his summer-house study desk he was a lay preacher and chairman of the local YMCA. He was non-denominationalist in the sense that he deplored clerical interference in (especially) higher educational establishments in Ireland, whether criticizing the Presbyterian Church for its meddling in the Queen’s Colleges, Dublin University for its stubborn clinging to its Anglican exclusivist leanings, or the Roman Catholic Church for its disparagement of the non-denominational Queen’s Colleges.

Whitla hence left his considerable and beneficent stamp on Ulster in numerous ways (to say nothing of his international reputation gleaned through his publications). He died at his home in Lennoxvale on 11 December 1933 and was buried in Belfast City Cemetery. An Ulster History Circle blue plaque commemorating him was unveiled on 25 February 2009, on one of the eponymous halls, that at Queen’s University, Belfast.

Born: 15 September 1851
Died: 11 December 1933
Richard Froggatt

Sir Peter Froggatt


Brian Walker & Alf McCreary: Degrees of Excellence: The Story of Queen’s, Belfast 1845-1995 (Belfast, Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s University, 1994); Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Dictionary of Irish Biography; Peter Froggatt: “William Whitla and his Legacy” in Alvin Jackson & David N Livingstone: Queen’s Thinkers (Belfast, Blackstaff, 2008); Brian J Todd: A Remarkable Belfast Institution: the Royal Belfast Institution 1810-2010; Kate Newmann: Dictionary of Ulster Biography (Belfast, Institute of Irish Studies, 1993); RG Shanks: “The Legacies Of Sir William Whitla”, Ulster Medical Journal 1963/1, April 1994); Ulster Medical Journal, 79/1 (January 2010, letter, page 30); Robert Marshall, Methodist College Belfast: the first hundred years (Belfast: Governors of Methodist College); private information; personal knowledge