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Sir William Tyrrell (1885 - 1968):
Physician; international athlete

William (“Billy”) Tyrrell was born at 6 Hopewell Street, Shankill Road, Belfast, eldest of nine children; he had five brothers and three sisters. His father, John Tyrrell, of farming stock from Ballyearl, near Glengormley later became an Alderman of the City of Belfast. He married, at Ballysillan Presbyterian Church on 12 February 1885, Jennifer Todd, daughter of a local grocer, Samuel Todd, the ceremony being conducted by Rev W Johnston. Billy was educated at Friends’ School, Lisburn until 1900 when he moved to the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, to be followed by Queen’s College, Belfast (QCB) to study Medicine. Conveniently, that College had considerable flexibility in the structure of the curriculum leading to the qualification of MB, BCh of the National University of Ireland but also enabled students to sit for Licences of the Royal Colleges of Physicians and of Surgeons, recognised as Licentiates to practice, and this enabled students to follow other pursuits and interests, in Tyrrell’s case as an outstanding sportsman and organiser of different kinds of social event, often for charities. He was well known and patronised in Belfast and beyond, but stretched for time for his studies: an obituary stated that “his sporting activities as an athlete and swimmer and as a rugby player tended to retard his conquest of the medical curriculum”, not to mention his other considerable extra-curricular activities. As a result he did not qualify in medicine until 1913, after the stricter disciplines of the new Queen’s University came into force (1908).

Rugby was Tyrrell’s major sport, perhaps unusual for someone of his comparatively short stature though he was possessed of an impressive physique. He normally played among the forwards in a back row position. His first fully representative game for Ireland came in 1910 in the 19:8 win against France in Paris and he was selected for the British Isles squad which toured South Africa though he was not selected for any of the matches against the full South Africa side as it was felt someone rather larger was called for to face a physically very robust side on firm pitches. Nevertheless he acquitted himself well in other matches; in all he played nine full internationals for Ireland, being on the winning side in four of these, and scoring two tries. He was also a fine sprinter and middle distance runner, and represented Ireland at aquatic sport: swimming and water polo.

In 1912 Tyrrell’s interest in and concern for others including his medical service colleagues led him to seek a position in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) prior to his sitting the final medical degrees which he intended to sit in 1913 but due to a minor deficiency in his ocular refraction he was only eligible for the RAMC Special Reserve and it was as such a reservist that he graduated MB BCh BAO of Queen's University Belfast, ten years after embarking on medical studies at QCB.

He then held a house appointment for one year at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast (RVH) 1913-1914 and also held an appointment as Assistant Medical Officer for Health during the scarlet fever epidemic of 1913. On the outbreak of the war in August 1914 Tyrrell went on active service with the RAMC, initially attached to the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers as Regimental Medical Officer; in 1915 he was promoted to command the 1st Military Ambulance Corps and in 1916 he became Deputy Assistant Director, VIII Corps Medical Services; 1917-18 he was in command of the 7th Field Ambulance. Later in 1918 he was Officer Commanding, RAMC School of Instruction and when the war ended (effectively November 1918) he had attained the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. He was decorated for bravery, efficiency and organisational ability: MC in 1914; Croix de Guerre (Belgium) 1916; DSO (the second-highest British decoration) and bar 1918. In addition he was Mentioned in Despatches no fewer than six times. At the end of the war he was seconded as Principal Medical Officer to the new Royal Air Force, at that time based in Germany with the army of occupation.

Tyrrell survived the war; two of his brothers were not so lucky. He lost two brothers, both on active service in the Royal Flying Corps. Captain Walter Alexander Tyrrell, born 22 August 1928 and another former pupil of RBAI, died 9 June 1918 and lies in Beauvais Communal Cemetery, which is administered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Not a fortnight later another brother, Captain John Marcus Tyrrell, also an alumnus of RBAI, died on 20 June. He was interred in Boulogne Eastern Cemetery, this also administered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Their father would later donate a cup to be competed for by military cadets of RBAI.

Tyrrell soon found himself in Somaliland, reportedly as a member of the “Z” expedition before being appointed to a permanent position with the RAF in 1920. In 1922-23 he was stationed in Basra and 1923-1926 he was principal RAF Medical Officer in Palestine. From 1927 until 1931 he was based at the RAF College at Cranwell, by now promoted Group Captain. 1932-1935 he was back in the Middle East, based in Iraq as Chief Medical Officer proving himself more and more a highly competent administrator, efficiently reorganising the RAF medical system for the entire region. In 1935 he returned to England as Principal Medical Officer of Training Command and promoted Air Commodore; further promotion to Air Vice-Marshal came on the cusp of World War Two in 1939.

In 1942 he was appointed CBE and two years later on retirement he was appointed KBE and served as Director of Medical Services for three years on the Board of the new commercial airline, the British Overseas Airline Corporation. He retired finally in 1947, though he was very active: in 1949 he became a governor of RBAI, had been President of the Belfast Old Instonians Association, 1946-1947 and in 1947 presented a prize to the school for community service; this required the formation of small teams, a survey, a written report and organisation all of which required skills which were close to his heart; and of course he presented a trophy for the best junior swimmer at the annual swimming gala. Tyrrell was also active in the administration of the Irish Rugby Football Union, being President 1950-1951, was awarded the Arnott Memorial Gold Medal of the Council of Irish Medical Schools and Graduate Association. In 1947 he was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws by Queen’s University, Belfast, and was made a knight of St John; another distinction was as honorary surgeon to King George VI, 1939-1943.

Tyrrell married, in 1929, Barbara Coleclough, of Hampshire; they had two sons and a daughter. His last years were marred by an increasingly disabling illness.

The present writer has elsewhere described Tyrrell thus:

Unlike many Ulstermen who have reached high rank in the Armed Forces Medical Service, such as Sir William MacArthur, Sir John Megaw, Sir Robert McCarrison, and Brigadier John Sinton VC, FRS ... Tyrrell was neither intellectual nor academic, but a vigorous man of action and a born leader of men, rugged and determined but good-natured and approachable and of considerable personal charm; warm-hearted, he made fast friends, and he was utterly dependable: in short he possessed the qualities essential for success as an administrator. A colleague, AP Foster, former Headmaster of Belfast Royal Academy, who was a team member with Tyrrell of four Irish International rugby teams, has written perspicaciously: “for ten years he impressed his personality on Queen’s. In any student activity, whether it was a fête to raise money for the Union, a students’ night out at the Opera House, or a protest against Christian Science, he was the life and soul of the occasion... He had many gifts, but one of these surpassed all the rest, the gift of making and keeping friends. If you were his friend, you were his friend for life.

Born: 20 November 1885
Died: 29 April 1968
Peter Froggatt

The author is particularly grateful to Maud Hamill, Ulster History Circle, for additional research


J Weaver and P Froggatt: “The Wild Geese”, Ulster Medical Journal, vol 56, Supplement, p 38 (1987); obituary, British Medical Journal, 1968 vol 2 p 369; obituary, The Lancet, 1968, vol 1 p 1047; Brian J Todd, A Remarkable Belfast Institution: the Royal Belfast Institution 1810-2010, vol 1 (RBAI/Priory Press 2013); personal knowledge;