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Dr Cecil Shaw (1864 - 1913):
Physician; X-ray pioneer

Dr Cecil Shaw was a medical practitioner specialising mainly in ophthalmology, who in February 1896, other claims notwithstanding, became according to all available evidence the first person in Ireland to produce a clinical X-ray image.

Cecil Edward Shaw was born in Belfast, son of Rev George Shaw, Minister of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church. He was educated at the oyal Belfast Academical Institution and in 1880 entered Queen’s College Belfast to study Arts and Medicine. He graduated BA (1883), MA (1885), MD MCh 1887 (all at Queen’s College and therefore from the Royal University of Ireland); postgraduate study followed, at Marburg, Vienna and Paris. He spent some time in London as a clinical assistant at Moorfields Ophthalmic Hospital and the Golden Square Throat Hospital. In Ulster he was assistant surgeon to Dr Walton Brown at the Belfast Ophthalmic Hospital (1895-1913); consultant oculist to the Alexandra Hospital, Ballymena and the County Antrim Infirmary, Lisburn; assistant visiting ophthalmic surgeon to Dr Hayden Mulholland at the Mater Infirmorum, Belfast and the Ulster Hospital for Children and Women; honorary laryngologist to the Hospital for Consumption and Diseases of the Chest, Belfast. He was Lecturer in Ophthalmology and Otology to Queen's College, Belfast, and Queen’s University, Belfast, the successor institution, from 1904 until 1913. His book Diseases of the Eye appeared in 1895 and he published numerous academic papers on ophthalmologic themes.

One of Shaw’s interests was in the new X-ray technology which rather burst on the medical scene in January 1896, first reported in the Vienna press on January 5, 1896, and in the following day's London Daily Chronicle, subsequently mid-month in The Lancet and the British Medical Journal. The first Irish newspaper report on the new technology was some 10 days later in the Freeman’s Journal of January 17.

Shaw was the first person on record as having produced a clinical X-ray in Ulster or anywhere in Ireland: Professor WF Barrett was long taken by some as the holder of this accolade having produced such an image in Dublin on 16 March 1896, and while James Murray, in his 1995 article “The Early Formative Years in Irish Radiology”, mentions two other possible candidates, he notes that these claims he was unable to confirm. These were that the first Irish X-ray was taken at Clongowes Wood College by Rev Henry Gill SJ; Gill had participated in a demonstration of X-rays at Louvain in early January 1896, so may have been a demonstrator himself on return to Dublin (Gill was a noted scientist and writer on electricity and X-rays in the early 20th century). A further suggestion noted by Murray comes from Monsignor PJ McLaughlin who published a paper in the Jesuit quarterly, Studies, in 1945, positing that the first “experiment to any purpose” with X-rays in Ireland was by Monsignor Gerald Molloy, Rector of the Catholic University of Ireland, but Murray states that that he was not able to confirm this.

(There was also, sardonically, the 17th Baron Dunsany of County Meath, who acquired X-ray equipment for his castle, but this was for purely personal use, notwithstanding a popular quip that X-rays were available at Dunsany Castle before they were in any hospital.)

Professor McInerny adds to the candidates for the first Irish X-ray, Dr John O’Donnell at the Mater Hospital, Dublin, and WS Haughton at Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital, Dublin, whom he describes as the leader of the clinical use of radiology in Ireland. Haughton, Dublin-born but Ulster-educated at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, acquired his own X-ray equipment, as was often the case for early practitioners of radiology, in London in March 1896. Haughton would become by common consent the leading figure in the development of radiology in Ireland.

As late as July, 1985, in his article in the Irish Medical Journal, Professor Murray was writing that it as “generally accepted that the first recorded clinical X-ray in Ireland” was produced by Professor Barrett. However, in his 1995 chapter in Carr's anthology on a century of radiology in Ireland, Murray now cites an older event: The Lancet of 29 February 1896 ran an article from its own correspondent, entitled “The New Photography”, which stated: 

At a meeting of the Ulster Amateur Photographic Society Dr. Cecil Shaw gave a very interesting lecture on February 24th on the recent discoveries of Professor Roentgen. A variety of illustrative radiographs were shown, among them being the hand of a person, who, while at revolver practice, shot himself through the little finger, and the hand of a former house surgeon in the Royal Hospital who suffered from blood poisoning. The changes produced by the disease on the hand were well seen. 

As Murray himself summarises: “Cecil Shaw in Belfast was demonstrating radiographs as early as 24 February, 1896, and should be accorded the honour of being first in the field in Ireland.”  The Lancet of 15 February had announced a planned demonstration of "the new Lenart or Roentgen rays" for that date in Dublin, but no subsequent report of this exists. 

The Lancet further reported, on the following 14 March, on a “Students Conversatione” at Queen’s College: “In the Chemistry Lecture Hall Dr. Cecil Shaw had a crowded audience to see his illustrations of the new photography.”  

Shaw, who practised at 29 University Square, Belfast, appears never to have married and died of pernicious anaemia.

Born: 19 January 1864
Died: 10 April 1913
Richard Froggatt

Sir Peter Froggatt; Dr Barry Kelly


RSJ Clarke: A Directory of Ulster Doctors (Ulster Historical Foundation 2013); Barry O’Donnell: Irish Surgeons and Surgery in Ireland in the Twentieth Century, (Dublin, Gill & Macmillan, 2008); Professor James P Murray, in James C Carr (ed): A Century of Medical Radiation in Ireland – An Anthology (The Anniversary Press, 1995); Dictionary of Irish Biography vol 4 p 525: WS Haughton