Sam Hanna Bell Samuel Beckett John Hewitt Bernard (Barney) Hughes James Joseph Magennis VC Frances Elizabeth Clarke Stewart Parker William Carleton Rosamond Praegar

Professor William Mateer (1795 - 1865):
Physician; medical educator

William Mateer played a significant role in the development of the first Belfast Medical School (1835-1849). 

Mateer (var. Matteer), born in 1795 or 1796 in Belfast, studied medicine at Edinburgh graduating MD from the University in 1831 with a thesis “De analogia legum physicarum et vitalium”. Returning to Belfast he was soon appointed (in 1833) a district physician to the Belfast Fever Hospital and General Dispensary (hereafter “the Hospital”), a recognised first step to local professional advancement, becoming an Attending Physician the next year (1834), an unusually rapid promotion, and he remained on the active staff until 1850. But even before his district appointment and within two years of graduating, he applied along with Henry MacCormac for the proposed chair of chemistry at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (hereafter RBAI), the terms stipulating that an applicant had “to be a physician”, which Mateer and MacCormac were, the tenure would be temporary, and the salary “to arise solely from the fees of the students”. Due to lack of assured funding the appointment was delayed, in the event for nearly four years. In the meantime and with scrupulous impartiality, first MacCormac and then Mateer, the two applicants, were appointed to give “daily popular lectures on chemistry in the [RBAI] Common Hall”, to be joined later by other colleagues giving classes in certain other subjects and all awaiting the proposed joint medical school (the Hospital/RBAI) to be authorised and with assured and continuing funding. When the chair of chemistry was finally established in 1835, Thomas Andrews, admittedly an outstanding applicant, was preferred by 14 votes to three for John Deuchar and two for Mateer. 

Mateer, disappointed, and already showing investigative ability, energy and statistical interest was still ambitious for a chair in the medical school enterprise. His chance came in August 1836 when James Lawson Drummond, Professor of Anatomy and Physiology and holder of the recently established, but so far unfunded, subsidiary Chair of Botany, resigned from the latter under pressure of work. Mateer replaced him in October (1836): he was now the only candidate but he polled a comfortable eleven of 16 possible votes in the appointing committee. In November and with the Chair now funded and to be tenured from the 1837-8 session for five years in the first instance at £50 per year, Mateer started “regular classes” in the subject at 8.00 a.m. to as many as 30 or more students. Shortly afterwards he also attended, in a rota with Dr Little and Dr Coffey, a dispensary in the new so-called “College Hospital” (a former cavalry barracks in Barrack Street) which RBAI, in their search for degree-giving medical school credentials rather than remaining a mere “Preparatory Medical School”, had purchased for £1,750 (of which the government paid £875) and were planning to turn into a pioneer teaching hospital of some 100 beds under their own control. When a serious outbreak of “fever” (succinctly, typhus) occurred in 1837 Mateer could, and did, transfer some of the overflow of his fever cases from the Hospital to the Spartan facilities of the prematurely, and only part-opened, College Hospital, since he was a member of the staff of both. 

In September 1849 the RBAI Faculty of Medicine closed for reasons the present writer has fully discussed elsewhere. The Professors were compensated or given appropriate positions in the new Queen’s College, Belfast. Mateer, MacCormac and Marshall were three who were not taken over by Queen’s College, and each was compensated with a gratuity of £250, being five years’ salary as purchase of his five-year tenure. The following year (1850) Mateer also retired from his position as an Attending Physician to the Hospital and returned to full-time private practice. He died on 1 April 1865 in Belfast.

Born: 1795
Died: 1 April 1865
Peter Froggatt

The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Mercer Library (courtesy of Mary O’Doherty); Public Records Office Northern Ireland (courtesy of Stephen Scarth)


P Froggatt: ‘The foundation of the “Inst” medical department and its association with the Belfast Fever Hospital’ (Ulster Medical Journal, 45, 107-145, 1976); Ibid: ‘The first medical school in Belfast, 1835-1849’ (Medical History, 22, pp 237-266, 1978); AG Malcolm, History of the General Hospital, Belfast and the other Medical Institutions of the Town, Etc., (Belfast: W & G Agnew, 1851); RSJ Clarke: A Directory of Ulster Doctors. (Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation, 2013, vol. II, p.779). 

Selected publications of Mateer:  

“On the injurious effects of salt on the animal system”, Dublin Journal of Medical Science, 6, 406-418 (1835); “Statistics of fever, with general observation on its nature, causes and treatment”; ibid, 10, 32-52 (1836); and “On the coagulability of urine as a diagnostic and therapeutic sign of dropsies”, Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, 47, 68-97 (1837).