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Michael Francis O'Reilly (1846 - 1917):
Educationalist and teacher; scientist

Michael Francis O’Reilly, a lifelong Christian Brother, had an equally lifelong career in Science with special interest in electricity and magnetism, and had an impressive record of papers published in these areas, some reflecting his keen foresight. A most able academic administrator as Director of St Joseph's College, then in Clapham, he had a long career in teaching on both sides of the Atlantic. In Ireland and as a scientist he is probably most noteworthy for his early promotion of the use of the X-ray, when this discovery was only beginning to be known, understood, or used. In fact, he was one of the very first anywhere in Ireland to produce a clinical X-Ray image.

O’Reilly was born in Bailieborough, County Cavan, that is to say, his parents, James O’Reilly and Judith (née Finnegan) were registered as domiciled in the village although they might have dwelt outside it (some have made a claim that he was actually born in Meath though this has been regarded as speculative); the precise day of his birth has been disputed, but September 25 exists in a document in O'Reilly's own handwriting. In any case, Michael Francis (the eldest child) was born at a very inauspicious time, and when he was about one year old the family followed so many Ulster and Irish families of the time and emigrated to New York, where they settled in the parish of St Brigid’s on the East Side of the city, with its large Irish population. Michael began to attend school as soon as he was old enough, and in 1858 a new school building was opened which could accommodate some 1100 pupils. The 550 boys’ school was given over to the care of the De La Salle Order of Christian Brothers, one of whom, Brother Chronian, was Michael’s principal teacher, and more, inspiration, as a later acquaintance would testify. He soon decided to join the religious teaching life and entered the Order’s Montreal novitiate at age 13. Later in life he indicated that his parents, while supportive of his move, nevertheless found the concomitant separation something of a wrench. On June 12, 1859, he was formally admitted as Brother Potamian, choosing this, the name of a sixth-century Bishop of Agrigentum.

His training as a teacher, as opposed to his religious calling, commenced reasonably promptly with an appointment as a teaching assistant of the lowest class at a school in Pointe-Lévis, Quebec. One year there was followed by a return to an urban school in Montreal, but after one term, in November 1861, he was back in Quebec where he taught for the rest of the school year. In September 1862 he was appointed to the teaching staff of a new Commercial Academy where he would remain for seven years, Latterly as Vice-Principal (appointed in August 1865). He taught for one year at the Christian Brothers College at St Louis, Missouri, before his appointment to St Joseph’s College, Clapham, London, a small establishment of under 100 pupils and intended for education of middle-class children at a time when such schools were relatively few in number, not least specifically Catholic schools. The College was just fifteen years old when Potamian took up his appointment in July 1870. He applied himself assiduously and successfully with a “results-oriented” approach which drew praise from the College Head, Brother Liguori, and an increased demand for places; Liguori himself, only two years in post on Potamian’s arrival, had already begun to build up the College’s academic resources.

Potamian had one particular aim, to have St Joseph’s alumni proceed to tertiary education, partly to ease entry into the professions. He considered the two ancient universities as unsuitable, mainly for religious reasons, preferring the University of London as the institution of choice, especially with its emphasis on scientific subjects at a time when a strong rise in the status of “Science”, intellectually as well as professionally, made study of scientific subjects increasingly desirable. Potamian himself matriculated at London in 1874, by examination, graduated BSc in 1878 and eventually DSc in 1883, all the while a full-time teacher (of the top class) and director of studies at St Joseph’s. In 1889 he was elected a Member of Convocation of the University of London.

In 1893 Potamian arrived in Waterford as Professor of Physics in the new Teacher Training College and Scholasticate which had been opened in an apparently not very appealing building in 1891, but in 1894 the College moved into new, bespoke premises, officially opened on July 16. Of special interest to Potamian was that the new College building was furnished with well-equipped science laboratories; he wasted no time, for example, setting up a 60-foot pendulum to illustrate the rotation of the Earth.

It was at Waterford that Potamian produced his famous X-ray image at the request of a local doctor whose patient was suffering from a steel splinter in her hand. Professor of Physics at the University of Würzburg, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen had been studying cathode rays in 1896 when late in the afternoon of 8 November he noticed a mysterious glow emanating from an object in the darkened room. Over the following weeks he carefully studied this radiation until he was able to produce a radiograph of his wife’s hand with her wedding ring, showing clearly the skeleton of her fingers which rather alarmed her. He published a comprehensive article, “Eine Neue Art von Strahlung” (“A New Type of Rays”) detailing his findings, in the Proceedings of the Würzburg Physical Medical Society on 28 December 1895. Within only a few weeks his discovery had been widely reported internationally, first in Vienna on January 5, 1896, the following day in the London press and by mid-month in The Lancet and the British Medical Journal in London, while in Ireland the first publication to cover the “new photography” was the Freeman’s Journal in Dublin. Many in the medical profession were quick to take interest in this “new photography”. In fact, unlike many discoveries or innovations in medicine which are slow to be adopted or even recognised, medical practitioners were very quick to adopt this new technology.

The Irish profession was no exception, but there was long some doubt as to who was the first in Ireland to produce a “radiograph” or X-ray image. Potamian’s biographer, Battersby, did not quite claim this for Potamian, writing in 1953 that he was “one of the first and probably the very first”. James Murray, Professor of Radiology at Galway and an historian of the subject, writing in 1985 attributed it to Professor Barrett of Dublin, revised this view by 1995 following a report in The Lancet of 29 February 1896; now for Murray, the earliest attested clinical X-ray taken anywhere in Ireland was in Ulster, by Dr CE Shaw, a Belfast doctor and Lecturer at Queen’s College. Professor WF Barrett produced the first clinical X-ray in Dublin on 16 March at the Royal College of Science. However, only weeks later, in Waterford, a local practitioner, one Dr Atkins, who had heard about the “new photography”, asked Potamian to assist him in treating his patient by producing an X-ray image, or radiogram, of the affected area. This was done at De La Salle College, Waterford, in the presence of many of Waterford’s medical practitioners; Dr Atkins operation to remove the foreign body from his patient’s hand was successful. Commenting on this in 1995, radiologist Professor David J Murnaghan described Potamian as: 

... a scientist of some standing with a Doctor of Science Degree from London University and with limited means he was a significant contributor to developments in electricity and magnetism. It was thus an extraordinary feat that he carried out one of the earliest diagnostic X-ray examinations at Waterford on April 13th 1896. 

It can now be averred that Potamian counts clearly among the earliest pioneers of radiology in Ireland, the first non-medical one, and the first outside the major cities of Belfast and Dublin.

Twenty years later Potamian recalled the events of 13 April in an interview with a New York newspaper. In his words as quoted by Battersby: 

I was urged to overcome personal reluctance and to use the apparatus of the De La Salle Training College to find a splinter of steel which, some time before, had found its way unnoticed into the hand of a young woman. Her physician begged that the experiment be made. 

There follow some technical details, then: “The exposure was for one minute. When the plate was developed the splinter was distinctly seen and it was promptly removed.”

In August of 1896 the Order saw fit to transfer Potamian back across the Atlantic, to its prestigious Manhattan College in New York, where he would spend the remainder of his career. Manhattan by this stage had become a chartered body with an outstanding panel of some thirty Professors alone. By chance, that is, the sudden decease of the incumbent, Potamian was appointed to the Chair of Engineering and Head of that School. By all accounts Potamian characteristically applied himself to such matters as furnishing the classrooms and laboratories with the most up-to-date equipment. Again, Battersby cites contemporary views of Potamian by his students who pointed up no short list of qualities they admired and respected in him. He meanwhile had added another achievement to his collection as Editor of the Faculty Newsletter; he ensured its prompt appearance and even contributed himself (though no doubt his cheery verse would be more suited to that epoch than a century later).

On Monday 10 July 1899, Potamian even played a life-saving role at sea. He was sailing on the Portia, bound for Newfoundland, when bad weather including fog was encountered and the ship hit a submerged rock and sank.. Potamian the scientist knew that in fog high-pitched noises travel further than lower pitched ones, so he persuaded a young boy he recognised to scream, whistle, and otherwise produce high-pitched noises. His supposition turned out to be accurate, and all the passengers were saved – though their luggage perished.

Battersby succinctly summed up Potamian thus: 

... what matters in education is the teacher, and that the kind of education given will depend essentially on the kind of man who gives it. This was clearly seen two-and-a-half centuries ago by St. de la Salle, the Founder of the teaching Order to which Brother Potamian belonged. Brother Potamian merely realised in his person, the idea in the mind of the Saint. But this is his greatest glory.

Born: 25 September 1846
Died: 20 January 1917
Richard Froggatt

Dr Barry Kelly; Leslie McKeague


James Murray: “The Early Formative Years in Irish Radiology” in Dr James C Carr (ed): A Century of Medical Radiation in Ireland – An Anthology (The Anniversary Press 1995); David J Murnaghan: “Irish Physicists in Pre-Röntgen and Early Post- Röntgen Developments” in Carr, op cit; WJ Battersby PhD: Brother Potamian, Educator and Scientist (London, Burns Oates 1953); JP Murray: “Brother Potamian O'Reilly: Irish scientist and x-ray pioneer”, Irish Medical Journal, 1985 Jul 78 (7):196-8