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William Dease (1752 - 1798):
Physician; surgeon; medical educator

William Dease was one of the leading surgeons in Dublin (and therefore Ireland) in the last two decades of the eighteenth century, whose principal contribution to Irish medicine was probably the establishment of the profession of surgery as an independent entity, properly regulated by a professional body, and to reform and improve medical education in Ireland. 

He was born at Lisney, County Cavan, the younger son of Richard Dease and Anne Johnson; his elder brother John eventually emigrated to North America as personal physician to their uncle, Sir William Johnson and later became a government official dealing with Indian (now called First Nation) affairs. William attended Dr Clancy’s School in Dublin and was then apprenticed to a Dublin surgeon, Michael Keogh. He studied medicine in Dublin and for four years in Paris, absorbing many lessons in the latter which he later worked hard to implement in Dublin, and then practised surgery and obstetrics in Dublin, with practices in Meath Street, Usher’s Quay and Sackville Street (today’s O’Connell Street), then an affluent and prestigious address; Dease spoke of having a large number of patients drawn from his neighbours, many of whom were of the nobility. He was surgeon to the United Hospitals of St Nicholas and St Catherine and to the Lock Hospital and visiting surgeon to the Meath hospital from 1793.

Besides his successful and (generally) esteemed surgical abilities, Dease was especially concerned about the conditions of medical education in Ireland and with the regulation of the surgical profession, or the lack of this as he and many colleagues saw it. The University of Dublin at this time had a medical academic staff of a Regius Professor of Physic, a lecturer in anatomy and chirurgery and lecturers in chemistry and botany. The celebrated physician Sir Patrick Dun, who had died in Dublin of fever during an epidemic in 1713, had provided in his will for a Professor of “Physic” in the Royal College of Physicians. In 1742 by Act of Parliament this one position was extended into three (as Sir Patrick had envisaged). However, these Professors fell some way short of their teaching duties; lectures were given in Latin which, Dease observed, was often an excuse for their not being given at all. There was little or no clinical instruction, there being no tradition of this descending from the Renaissance and Middle Ages; what lectures were given were done so gratis, which had the effect that they were considered not to be really worth attending; and the system of appointment by examination had the drawbacks of putting off prospective candidates whose professional standing might be damaged by failure, while successful performance in the examination might not indicate the most able candidate. 

Dease saw the issues of medical education and professional regulation as closely linked. At the beginning of the 18th century there had already been appeals voiced for regulating the surgical profession in Dublin, at a time when the Barber-Surgeons’ Guild not only conjoined these two vocations but also included “Apothecaries and Peruke-makers”. In the 1720s there was some evidence that surgeons were gradually withdrawing from such associations. Glasgow had established a Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons by 1599, but probably Paris, where Dease was part-educated, had a College of Surgeons dating back as far as 1255, was his preferred model.

Dease was a member of the Society of United Irishmen. He was not the only person connected with the College to involved with this organisation, other notables including William Lawless, Professor of Anatomy and Physiology, appointed 1794, who escaped the authorities and joined the army of Napoleon, rising to the rank of Maréchal de Camp (roughly, Brigadier-General); and James Macartney, “one of the greatest anatomists Dublin has produced”, who was from Armagh and before his medical interest had worked in the linen trade in Newry, County Down. Dease’s connection with the United Irishmen has been the basis of one theory to explain his sudden death, at his home in Sackville Street, the assertion being that he had been warned by George Stewart, a former President of the College in 1794 and 1799 and Surgeon-General to the Forces, of his imminent arrest. Dease in any case seems to have killed himself by severing his femoral artery. Of the two other theories advanced, one was that he killed himself out of distress following an operation after which his patient died. The third theory was that he suffered a bilious attack which led to a ruptured blood vessel which killed him. There was no inquest. The historian of the College Widdess wrote that by Dease’s death “the College lost its chief founder.” 

His publications apart from the abovementioned included Different Methods of Treating the Venereal Diseases (1779) and Observations on Midwifery (1783 and 1798). Observations on Wounds of the Head (1776; much enlarged, 1778), Radical Cure of Hydrocele, and On Cutting for the Stone (1782).

Born: 1752
Died: 21 January 1798
Richard Froggatt

JDH Widdes: The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and its Medical School 1794-1984 (3rd ed, Dublin, RCSI, 1984): Dictionary of Irish Biography; RSJ Clarke: A Directory of Ulster Doctors (Belfast, Ulster Historical Foundation, 2013); Oxford Dictionary of National Biography