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

Dr William Smyth (1859 - 1901):

William Smyth was one of all too many members of the medical profession who have made not only personal sacrifices in the course of their work, but also have risked the supreme one, as they exposed themselves not merely to war, political dictatorships or terrorism, but to the often far more toxic dangers of what were called “epidemic and contagious diseases”. Smyth would succumb to the latter in the course of his duties, contracted in heroic circumstances.

He was born on 30 March 1859 at Stonepark, Mount Charles, County Donegal, eldest son of the local dispensary medical officer, Dr Samuel Smyth, and a local girl (née Scott).  He was educated at The Royal School, Raphoe and entered Trinity College, Dublin in 1876 taking, in 1880, the Licence in Medicine (LM) of Dublin University (DU) and the ‘letters testimonial’ (i.e. the Licence) of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (LRCSI), and its Licence in Midwifery (of RCSI) in 1881. He was appointed medical officer to Ardara Dispensary District that year, and on the death of the incumbent (Dr Spencer) from typhus in 1882 he succeeded him as dispensary doctor to the 12,000 inhabitants in the rugged ‘congested districts’ of Dungloe and Burtonport which included inhabited off-shore islands. On 26 April 1883 he married Esther Minnie Keown (born 1864/5), daughter of William Keown, merchant of Burtonport, and they had 14 children, six of whom died in childhood. He was highly esteemed by his patients, his employers (the Glenties Board of Guardians), and the local clergy including Fr. Bernard Walker, parish priest of Burtonport, and he took his only lengthy break from his district in going to Canada for a protracted refreshing rest (October 1889 to May 1890).

In October 1901 during an outbreak of typhus which affected, among others, the extensive Gallagher family in the south-west of the island of Arranmore, and although suffering from an infected wound he daily rowed the six mile round-trip from Burtonport with food and medicines. Only one patient (‘Joe’ Gallagher) with his stricken wife and three children agreed to be transferred to Glenties fever hospital on the mainland, and after procuring (with some difficulty) a larger boat and with the assistance of a fellow Dublin University medical graduate (Dr Brendan McCarthy, medical inspector to the Local Government Board and medical officer of health for county Donegal) he rowed the five patients from Arranmore to Burtonport.  The boat later sank, but all the patients recovered!  Smyth, their saviour, did not long survive. Fit enough to visit the Glasgow Exhibition he returned ill and died on the 19th November at his residence, Roshine Lodge, of ‘fever’ (diagnosed by Dr. CER Gardiner as typhus fever) and was buried in Templecrone Church of Ireland graveyard beside the remains of his six deceased children. 

These exploits enforced by Smyth’s death in the line of duty exemplifying the highest calling of the Hippocratic profession, excited wide attention.  A biography and eulogistic poems soon appeared. An appeal for his straitened family was headed by the Presidents of the Royal Colleges of Physicians of Ireland, and of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, respectively Sir Christopher Nixon and Dr (later Sir) Thomas Myles, with the Trustees chaired by the Duke of Abercorn collecting over £6,000. Sir William Whitla commissioned a memorial window for the new Medical Institute in College Square North, Belfast which was to house the Ulster Medical Society, and it was unveiled by the Countess of Dudley, wife of the Lord Lieutenant, on 26 November 1902. Fittingly, Dr Brendan McCarthy was present. The window is reproduced in colour as the frontispiece to the Journal of the Irish Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons, volume 24 (No. 4), October 1995 (with a short history of its provenance by Peter Froggatt, page 241). The window is now (2014) to be found in the Whitla Insitute at Queen's University's Medical Biology Centre.


Born: 30 March 1859
Died: 19 November 1901
Peter Froggatt

Additional material: Richard Froggatt


Mary Rankin: “Dr. William Smyth: heroic Donegal doctor”, Donegal Annual (Journal of the County Donegal Historical Society), 1975-6, pp. 126-130;  FD How: A Hero of Donegal (London: Isbister, 1902); FS Boas: “Arranmore”; in Songs of Ulster and Balliol (London: Constable, 1917, pp.21-22); British Medical Journal, ii; 1709, (1901);  Lancet, i; 266 (1902); LM Little: The Westminster Gazette, 17 December 1901;  British Medical Journal, ii; 1833 (1901); RSJ  Clarke: A Directory of Ulster Doctors (who qualified before 1901), (Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation, 2013, vol II, p.1057, and 1197 (for the memorial Smyth window in monochrome)