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Thomas Ferrar (1797 - 1837):

Thomas was the third of the eight children (two girls; six boys) of William Hugh Ferrar (born 1771) of Limerick (and grandson of John Ferrar (1742-1804) the poet, author and ‘historian of Limerick’) but after 1809 living in Donegall Street, Belfast, and Maria Lloyd (born 1769) of Drumsallagh and Kildromin, County Limerick, and of Castle Lake, County Tipperary.  Thomas was born in Dublin on 24 August 1797, and after the family’s move to Belfast attended ‘Dr. Bruce’s’ Academy then also in Donegall Street, before matriculating at Trinity College Dublin (6 November 1815) as a ‘pensioner’, i.e. without the privileges of a ‘fellow commoner’ nor the menial obligations of a non-fee-paying ‘sizar’.  He proceeded BA,  but for reasons now unknown not until Hilary Term 1826, over ten years later, and graduated Bachelor of Medicine (MB) in Trinity Term 1829 and obtaining the Licence of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (LRCSI) on 23 July 1830 and its Licence in Midwifery (LM) in 1832.  He moved into practice in Sligo in 1834 or 1835.  In 1836 when living in Castle Street, Sligo, he applied for the recently vacated chair of surgery at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (RBAI) and on 5 July was unexpectedly elected in succession to John McDonnell (who had recently been appointed a surgeon to the Richmond Surgical Hospital in Dublin, one of the House of Industry hospitals) and in preference to the local candidates Henry Purdon and Robert Coffey (q.v.), obtaining ten votes to Coffey’s nine, Purdon having been eliminated in the first round.   This choice was surprising because not only was Coffey an MD (Glasgow) while Ferrar was an MB (Dublin) when RBAI had stated a preference for holders of an MD because “it is preferred by the Royal Colleges”, but he was also a respected and popular local surgeon, while Ferrar was an unknown outsider with slim credentials.  It is likely that Coffey’s strong adherence to ‘new light’(Non-Subscribing) Presbyterianism rather than main-stream Presbyterianism was a factor since the opinion of the ‘main-stream’ General Synod, through its Moderator, concerning the candidates could under the then selection procedure at RBAI be made known to the electors before their vote, and Ferrar as a member of the established Episcopalian Church of Ireland would not have attracted the same obloquy from the General Synod as would Coffey!  Ferrar attended the Faculty of Medicine’s meetings during August and received the customary Professor’s grant (£50) for teaching aids.  Although the medical school courses had not as yet been formally recognised by all of the various Colleges of Surgeons and the University of London nor had access to teaching hospital beds been secured, these defects were confidently expected to be righted since the necessary steps had been taken.  The way ahead for the start of the new (1846-7) session in November seemed assured. 

RBAI now advertised their medical classes for the 1836-7 session in the press on 10 October even though the appropriate recognition of these classes had not yet been confirmed, nor had hospital teaching beds been acquired though the purchase and equipping of the new ‘College Hospital’ to provide at least some of them was in hand.  All this was less than clear in the advertisement.  Ferrar, still in Sligo and concerned with the delay in recognition, now acted high-handedly by placing on his own volition a notice in the press on 29 October, only four days before term started, drawing attention to these ambiguities and stating that accordingly he had adjourned the start of his classes until such recognition was confirmed.   RBAI was appalled at Ferrar’s peremptory action and required him to start his classes on 2 November as planned.   Ferrar prevaricated, failed to comply, and after an exchange of letters (Ferrar was still where he had always been during the summer, in Sligo!) and despite some special pleading and an offer of compromise by Ferrar, RBAI “deposed” him by letter of 23 November for “neglecting the duties of his office”, and this was confirmed unanimously by the RBAI governing body six days later.  Ferrar accepted the decision with grace and returned without prompting the £50 teaching aid grant; but he remained convinced of the propriety of his actions until his death in Sligo on 2 June 1837.   The Sligo Journal for 9 June 1837 wrote “he was a just ornament to his profession being endowed with talents of a superior order.  His death is regretted by all to whom he was known”.   The Belfast Newsletter was brief recording simply that “Thomas Ferrar MD (sic) second surviving son of W. H. Ferrar of this town”, had died in Sligo on 2 June.  He was unmarried.  Robert Coffey, proxime accesit to Ferrar for the chair of surgery at RBAI in July 1836, succeeded him. 


Thomas Ferrar, who had no children, had five brothers; two died abroad in the armed services, one entered Holy Orders in England, one removed to Dundalk, and only one (Michael) settled in Belfast, as a distiller in Barrack Street..  Michael in turn had six sons of whom four emigrated, one became (in 1870) professor of Latin at Trinity College Dublin and only one, Augustus Minchin, who became a Deputy Lieutenant for County Antrim and a director of the linen merchants Jaffé Brothers, stayed in Belfast, and only one of his sons (William Augustus), a Justice of the Peace and a prosperous flax merchant, did likewise.  The male Farrar line disappeared from Belfast in 1944.  Thomas also had two sisters; Frances (1805-1879) who married Andrew Wallace, progressively an “accountant”, “merchant” and “gentleman”, on 18 October 1831 in St Anne’s church in Belfast; and Mary Elizabeth (1806-1889) who married Robert Patterson, a geologist who later became a Fellow of the Royal Society, in the First Congregation Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street, Belfast, on 11 June 1833.  Frances had nine children and Mary Elizabeth had eleven.  I have not tried to follow these two families further, but if the male Ferrar line has disappeared from Belfast, the distaff line probably has not!

Born: 24 August 1797
Died: 2 June 1837
Peter Froggatt

Froggatt, P., ‘The foundation of the “Inst” medical department and its association with Belfast Fever Hospital’, Ulster Medical Journal, 45, 107-145 (1976);   Ibid., ‘Thomas Ferrar, MB, LRCSI (1797-1837): the absentee professor of surgery at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution’, Ulster Medical Journal, 65, 153-161 (1996);  Ibid.,  ‘The first medical school in Belfast, 1835-1849’, Medical History, 22, 237-266 (1978).