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Seton Sydney Pringle (1879 - 1955):
Physician; surgeon; medical educator

Professor Seton Sydney Pringle was one of the leading figures in the medical profession in Ireland, particularly its surgical branch, in the first half of the twentieth century.

Seton Pringle was born in Clones, County Monaghan on, son of a local businessman John Pringle and Maria Adelaide Pringle (née King). He was related through his father’s family to many distinguished medical colleagues including, among others, his cousin Harold Pringle, Professor of Physiology at the University of Dublin, 1919-1935, and his nephew John Seton Michael Pringle, Professor of Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, 1952-1961, a Fellow of that College, and Regius Professor of Surgery at the University of Dublin, Trinity College, 1961-1967.

Seton Pringle boarded at Coleraine Academical Institution and then at Campbell College, Belfast, which he entered in September 1895 becoming a prefect and a member of the rugby first XV in 1896-7 and from where he enrolled at Trinity College Dublin in 1897 graduating BA (with a first class Respondency) in 1902, and MB, BCh, BAO in 1903. He was an outstanding pupil, winning the Henry Hutchinson Stewart Scholarship and the recently founded (in 1901) Fitzpatrick Scholarship awarded to the student attaining the highest aggregate of marks in the professional course examinations. He at once (in 1903) became resident (house) surgeon at Mercer’s Hospital in Dublin, his choice being possibly influenced by generous benefactions from his father to the hospital to become payable on the benefactor’s death, which occurred in 1905. That year Seton completed his surgical training by becoming a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (FRCSI) and joined RCB. Maunsell and William (later Sir William) Ireland de Courcy Wheeler (usually known as Billy Wheeler) on the visiting surgical staff to form a team which was to make the hospital’s reputation as a leading Dublin teaching hospital and centre of surgical excellence. In 1920 he was elected to the Council of the RCSI and, already an examiner in surgery at RCSI, he became an examiner at TCD. 

On the outbreak of the First World War Pringle joined the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and served for a while in France in the Urgency Cases Hospital (attached to the French army) with the rank of lieutenant-colonel before being posted to the Red Cross Hospital, which opened in Dublin Castle in 1915, and by the end of the war he was serving as Commanding Officer of the Irish Counties War Hospital (1917-1919). On demobilisation he was appointed OBE. For reasons now obscure he resigned from his position at Mercer’s Hospital and was appointed a visiting surgeon to the Royal City of Dublin Hospital in Baggot Street where he was to remain until his retirement in mid-1944 aged 65.

During his years at Baggot Street his surgery thrived and his patient lists in both private and public practice lengthened. He quickly established a reputation as an adroit operator and skilful diagnostician, and stories were legion of his skill, speed, dexterity and judgement, especially in the field of abdominal surgery, which had become his forte, though he remained a skilful generalist such was his impeccable operating technique. The incomparable surgeon, medical historian and essayist, William Doolin, described him as “a man of his hands”; and he was truly that because although a well-organised lecturer and bedside teacher (as shown, for example, by the acknowledged clarity of the exposition in his lectures in surgical pathology given when he was appointed by TCD in 1925 in a personal capacity as a special lecturer in the pathology of bone), he confessed to Doolin that he found writing lectures and articles “an awful bother” and was content to limit his efforts to those essential to his clinical work. What he did write, however, was straightforward, clear and unadorned. A fine example was his profound report, “Some impressions of Italian surgery”, written in 1926 and based on visits of members attending the meeting of the International Congress of Surgery in Rome on 6 April 1926 and who had visited the major clinics of northern Italy. 

Honours and professional appointments came with his growing success which was based on his impressive track record but was also facilitated by his attractive personality and fine appearance, some six foot tall, generally considered handsome, always immaculately dressed, Pringle had an easy manner, good humour and a twinkling eye and appeared always to be about to chuckle, and reportedly often did in the operating theatre behind his mask!. He radiated good humour, charm and above all good sense, attributes which inspired patients’ confidence. He conducted his ever-growing private practice from his house in the heart of the medical professional men’s domain, 7 Fitzwilliam Place, and combined this with ever more abundant voluntary hospital work. In addition to the Royal City of Dublin Hospital he was visiting surgeon to Drumcondra Hospital, to Cork Street Hospital (1913-1929), to the Royal Hospital for Incurables (1931), to the Rotunda Hospital (from 1932) and to the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital (1936-1943).  Honours also accrued: he was President of the Dublin University Biological Society in 1913 (a measure of his popularity with students), President of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, 1934-1936 (a measure of his standing with colleagues), and President of the Royal Academy of Medicine in Ireland, 1940-1943 (a measure of his commitment to this multi-medical discipline body), and President of the Council of the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade, 1946-1955 (a measure of his commitment to medical and surgical emergency care), and he was also a Commander Officer of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem.  In 1936 he was honoured by his alma mater with the honorary degree of Master of Surgery (MCh). 

On reaching the age of 65 in the summer of 1944, Pringle retired from his professional responsibilities: he had noticed some loss of corporeal dexterity and resolution in decision-taking in the operating theatre, but he was to enter life’s final phase in good heart for he loved to return to his roots in the Irish countryside, where he had grown up, and to follow rural pursuits appropriate to “a man of his hands”. Here in Ringlestown House near Kilmessan, County Meath, convenient to the Boyne and close to Bective Abbey, he enjoyed idyllic happiness with his second wife, Eileen Florence (née Blandford), formerly ‘lady superintendent’ who in 1955 was promoted President of the Council of the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade in Ireland in succession to her husband. Pringle’s first wife Ethel, daughter of Dr. Andrew McMunn of Ballymote, County Sligo, and mother of his three sons and two daughters, had predeceased him in 1938. None of the children had followed him into medicine, but he never showed any disappointment; he had plenty of relatives already in the profession! He was now as happy as he had ever been; contented but not at rest as he mended fences, planted trees, improved gates, and acted as general handyman on the property, and never missed the chance to work at his well-equipped bench. A keen fisherman and first-class shot he waited for the open seasons when he could fish for salmon, shoot game-birds, mostly grouse and, in the marshes, snipe, and the year round attend to the farm which he had nurtured since he took possession, and watch the wild-fowl in the pond which he had constructed in the lawn in front of the house. (He seems not to have taken any great interest in ball games after leaving school, unlike his younger brother, John Conrad Pringle, who won two Irish international rugby caps, against Scotland and Wales, in 1902). He welcomed old friends and colleagues and entertained them hospitably. When his health began to fail he met the troublesome terminal illness with fatalistic cheerfulness and died on 10 November 1955.

He was interred in his native Clones, County Monaghan.

Born: 6 July 1879
Died: 10 November 1955
Peter Froggatt

Barry O’Donnell (Editor): Irish Surgeons and Surgery in the Twentieth Century (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2008, pp.301-2); DA Webb (Compiler) and JR Bartlett (Editor) (1992): Trinity College Dublin: Record Volume 1991 (Dublin; Trinity College Press, p.126); Obituary: Seton Pringle, OBE, MCh, FRCSI (British Medical Journal, 26 November 1955, pp 1332-3); Obituary: Seton Sydney Pringle. OBE, MCh, FRCSI (The Lancet, 26 November 1955, p.1145); VM Synge: ‘In Memoriam: S. Seton Pringle, OBE, MCh, FRCSI (1879-1955)’ (Irish Journal of Medical Science, January 1856, p.22); Pringle, Seton: ‘Some impressions of Italian surgery’ (Irish Journal of Medical Science, 1926, pp365-8); Gearoid Crookes: Dublin’s Eye and Ear: The Making of a Monument (Dublin: Town House and Country House, 1993, p.198) JB Lyons: An Assembly of Irish Surgeons (Dublin: Glendale Press and The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, 1984, pp.88-90); Idem: The Quality of Mercer’s: The Story of Mercer’s Hospital, 1734-1991.(Dublin: Glendale Press, 1991, pp.116, 126-8, 177); The Campbell College Register, 1894-1999, Sixth Edition (Printed by Stephen Austin & Sons Ltd, Hertford, 1999, p.38, no. 297, 298).

The quotation “a man of his hands” by William Doolin is taken from the Obituary of Pringle published in the British Medical Journal cited above.