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Robert Little (1801 - 1889):

Robert Little was born c.1801 into a farming family settled for several generations at Killyvolgan, County Down.  He was probably the ‘Robert Little’ who attended pre-university classes at the Belfast Academical Institution and obtained its ‘General Certificate’ in 1820, but nothing is definitely known of his education until he enrolled in Professor Jeffray’s anatomy class at the University of Glasgow for the 1822-3 session, then in the 1823-4 session at the School of Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland including clinical lectures in the Richmond Surgical Hospital, and he again enrolled with Jeffray for the 1824-5 session. He then probably took further classes in other subjects in preparation for his final examinations, and on 23 March 1826 he graduated Doctor of Medicine (MD) of the University of Glasgow and later that year as Licentiate in Midwifery (LM).  On return to Ulster he became a member of the Belfast Medical Society in July 1827 and on 1st November qualified Licentiate of Apothecaries Hall (LAH) in Dublin.  In May 1828 he was appointed as medical attendant to No.4 District of the Belfast Fever Hospital dispensary.  Two years later (1830) he married Mary Isabella Douglas, daughter of Archibald Douglas of Randalstown, and that year progressed to be one of the four “attending physicians” at the hospital (the equivalent of the present-day “visiting consultant”) and, after the customary five years, in 1835 was ranked as “consulting physician”.  He was also an active medical author publishing three lengthy articles and one book within two years (1834-1836) and was nominated (unsuccessfully) by his hospital colleagues to be the Professor of the Theory of Medicine in the proposed Belfast medical school, and (successfully) to give lectures in medicine in the period (1832-5) preceding the proposed school’s formation which, after years of negotiation and haggling between the hospital and the new Royal (since 1831) Belfast Academical Institution (RBAI),  finally opened as a joint venture in November 1835 with Little unopposed as Professor of Midwifery and Diseases of Women and Children (elected with 13 out of a possible total of 15 votes) and the first honorary treasurer of the RBAI Faculty of Medicine. At that time he was also “physician to the Ulster female penitentiary”: all were positions of responsibility and trust.   Little’s energy and ability were not in doubt, but his judgement leading at times to over-enthusiasm, was.  In 1833 despite only seven years in practice he applied (unsuccessfully) for the Regius Chair of Medicine at the University of Glasgow.   Furthermore his book with its extravagant claims for the efficacy of iodine in the treatment of tuberculosis was not well reviewed; he was critical of gratuitous rather than unpaid appointments to the hospital and dispensary staffs; and unlike many of his colleagues he was not active in literary, scientific or philanthropic activities outside his profession.  

In 20 May 1830 Little opened his soi-disant “Belfast Lying-in Charity”, originally in his own house in High Street but later at 15, Castle Street, and grandly described his position as its “physician accoucheur”.  It was successful: in the first five years, “upwards of 1,200 females were attended during labour and advice given to nearly 8,000 patients on the diseases peculiar to women and children”.  However possibly because of its alleged success Little soon fell foul of the authorities at RBAI.  The position was complex but may be simplified as follows.   Little was issuing to his enrolled students not just routine “class tickets” (which recorded simply attendance at a prescribed course) which he was enjoined to do, but instead he was issuing without authority a certificate in the form of a diploma to students who had completed his midwifery course at his personal lying-in charity in Castle Street and who, contrary to regulations, had not necessarily attended any accredited lectures at RBAI or studied or been examined in any subject..  Little’s “diploma” could then be taken erroneously as indicating an accredited competence in midwifery which had never been tested and this would clearly be detrimental to the reputation of the new medical school.  Little, now (1838) dean of the faculty of medicine, defended his actions robustly but not to the satisfaction of the RBAI governing body. He now lapsed into disinterest, ceased to attend meetings of the faculty though he continued his professional duties and collected his class fees and salary, and resigned all his positions by May 1840 and left Ulster. 

He now pursued an unusual peripatetic career.  From Belfast where he had been living at 9, Donegall Place and then 59, Upper Arthur Street he moved to Wolverhampton where he practised from 9, Church Street and then Darlington Street.  About this time and seemingly still with a senior academic post in mind, he reprinted his book of testimonials which he had submitted when applying for the Regius Chair of Medicine at Glasgow and now augmented with a reference from a leading Irish Presbyterian divine Henry Cooke, DD, dated 16 December 1845, which finishes “I consider him [Little] eminently qualified to fill the Chair of Midwifery to which he especially aspires, in any of the Irish Colleges [Belfast, Cork, Galway] about to be erected…”, though he was not a candidate when these chairs were filled in 1849.  He soon moved to 9, New Bridge Street, Manchester about 1860, then briefly to Holywood, County Down before emigrating in 1862 or 1863 to Scone in New South Wales, a small dairying centre in the mountains near the Hunter river some 140 miles north of Sydney where he stayed until about 1866.  He was back in Belfast in 1867 living in firstly no.4 and then 10, College Street South and voting in the General Elections of 1868, but did not rejoin the Belfast (now Ulster) Medical Society.  At some time between 1870 and 1876 he moved to 105 Botanic Road in Great Victoria Street before moving in 1881 to Donaghadee some 12 miles from Belfast on the County Down. coast, but only to return to 83, Corporation Street, Belfast, and then, when well into his ‘eighties, he moved again to his final address at 4, College Street South, Belfast.  He died on 27 February 1889 aged 87 and is buried in the family grave in the Abbey graveyard at Greyabbey, County Down.  His death was unrecorded in the local or national professional or diurnal press or by societies or institutions with which he had been associated.  He left no children.  His surviving relics are an armchair (“The doctor’s chair”) and a mahogany writing box with inscribed plate, both in possession of his brother’s descendants.

Born: 1801
Died: 27 February 1889
Peter Froggatt

Froggatt, P., ’The foundation of the “Inst” medical department and its association with the Belfast Fever Hospital’,  Ulster Medical Journal, 45, 107-145 (1976);  Ibid., ‘The resignation of Robert Little from the chair of midwifery at Inst’,  Ulster Medical Journal,, 48, 19-31 (1979);  Froggatt, P, Wheeler, W.G., ‘Robert Little, MA, MD, LAH, LM’: a biographical note’,  Ulster Medical Journal52, 58-66  (1983);  Froggatt, P.,  ‘The first medical school in Belfast, 1835-1849’, Medical History, 22, 237-266 (1978); Clarke, R.S.J., A Directory of Ulster Doctors (who qualified before 1901).  Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation, 2013, vol I, p.612.