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Sir Lambert Hepenstal Ormsby (1849 - 1923)

Lambert Hepenstal Ormsby was born on 19 July 1849 at Onchunga Lodge, Auckland, New Zealand, only son of George Owen Ormsby, civil engineer and son of a clergyman in Ballymascanlon, County Louth and who was an early emigrant to New Zealand (1844) and became deputy surveyor-general of the colony, and of Selina Ormsby (née Hepenstal), daughter of Rev. Lambert Watson Hepenstal of Altadore, Delgany, County Wicklow. Lambert attended the Commercial School and the Lyceum in Auckland and the Grammar School in Parnell, and deciding to join the Royal Navy he embarked, aged fifteen, for London. Seasickness and the privations of life at sea dissuaded him and instead he enrolled, in 1864, at the Royal School Dungannon, county Tyrone, to complete his education. In 1866 on the recommendation of his uncle, a clergyman in Arklow, County Wicklow, he was apprenticed to Mr. (later Sir) George Porter, surgeon to the Meath Hospital in Dublin, qualifying in 1869 with the Licence of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (LRCSI) and that of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland (LRCPI) and also the Licence in Midwifery (LM). Setting aside his earlier intention to join the Army Medical Service he accepted a post as demonstrator in anatomy at RCSI and achieved such success that within a year he was able to take a house (4 Lower Mount Street) where he lived and where he also boarded medical students to whom he gave successful, and lucrative, ‘grinds’. In January 1872 he was elected a surgeon to the Meath Hospital in succession to Robert Mayne, later becoming senior surgeon (a position he was to hold until his death in 1923), and moved to a larger house, 12 Lower Fitzwilliam Street, closer to the hub of Dublin’s medical men’s’ preserve.

Following his credo that the determinants of success are ‘energy, determination and perseverance’, all of which he had in abundance, he determined on a university education and, while ‘grinding’ students, teaching at RCSI, treating patients at the Meath Hospital, he added to this extensive work programme also his own preparation for degrees at Trinity College Dublin (TCD); and he took the Bachelor in Arts (BA) and Bachelor of Medicine (MB) degrees in 1874, the Fellowship of RCSI by examination in 1875 and added the Doctor of Medicine (MD of TCD) by a thesis on anaesthesia (1879) stimulated by his invention (in 1877) of a pocket ether inhaler which had become an international success. His rational mind and reforming zeal allied to his boundless energy, and perhaps also stimulated by his recent marriage (1874) and the birth of his first child, led him to an early interest in establishing facilities, then largely lacking, for the care of childhood diseases to add to his continuing interest in orthopaedics, and in 1876 he opened a two-room facility in 7 Upper Kevin Street as the grandly-sounding National Orthopaedic and Children’s Hospital, which was to be reconstituted in 1887 by amalgamating with the Institution for Sick Children to become the National Children’s Hospital at 87-88 Harcourt Street, the Dublin Red Cross Sisters’; House, with himself as senior surgeon. In 1880 he moved into the former home of Sir Dominic Corrigan, Dublin’s leading and highly renowned physician, at 4 Merrion Square West (re-numbered later as 92). This was to prove a watershed in his career as from then he focused mainly on his surgical practice both private and hospital, and in the activities of various medical and associated bodies, including those of nursing, aimed to advance the standards of health provision and care, and also those of some non-medical philanthropic bodies.

Ormsby had always placed the standard of nursing high on his agenda and in 1885 he was the main mover in establishing The Dublin Red Cross Nursing Sisters’ Home and Training School for Nurses in connection with the Meath Hospital and the National Children’s Hospital. It was, however, limited to ‘ladies by birth’, seemingly to attract into nursing well-educated applicants and so raise both nursing standards and the standing of the profession of nursing; and for years it supplied the associated hospitals with well-trained and qualified nurses as well as nurse probationers. He belonged to many professional organisations: the Royal Academy of Medicine in Ireland, of which he was elected a Fellow; President of RCSI (1902-1904); and in 1921, towards the end of his life, the College’s representative on the General Medical Council; honorary consulting surgeon to the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in World War I and in that capacity visiting the western front to study the conditions of ambulance transport; and there were others. His main philanthropic contributions were to found and chair the Association for the Very Poor in Dublin; to act as executor to the bountiful will of a certain Miss Allingham and administer its sizeable bequest; and to act as a trustee of the Taylor art bequest. He also encouraged potential donors of funds and resources to favour the Meath Hospital.

A man whose credo for success was ‘energy, determination and perseverance’ and with a high conceit of himself who did not suffer many – not just fools- gladly, is not likely to lead to a stress-free and uneventful life. Ormsby was no exception. There are many examples of his differing caustically and publicly with colleagues over not just professional problems and policies but matters better kept private: one such led to a charge of advertising and a censure from the RCSI on 18 May 1894 which was only rescinded after Ormsby’s written apology. He was cautioned early in his career (27 March 1876) by the hospital’s standing committee (of governors) for “making statements which they considered disrespectful to the committee and injurious to the good working of the hospital”, and in July 1878 the Matron complained of his rude behaviour towards her, a matter which had him again before the standing committee. He even criticised the Royal Navy Medical Service and the Admiralty over the medical terms of service and publicly advocated that his students boycott the Service, advice which was bitterly received in public but helped to lead to the reforming Durnford Committee in 1911. However, his intellectual and professional ability and reforming zeal were never in question. He was a member of a number of staff, and of joint staff/governor committees, and didn’t always agree with their decisions and was not afraid to say so! He published many articles in the medical press, some useful and others semi-promotional, and his Medical History of the Meath Hospital….., first published in 1888, remains the standard work on the early history of the hospital, and his biographical sketches of staff are insightful, seldom unduly trenchant and remain a reliable source. He was knighted in 1903.

Ormsby married, firstly (16 July 1874) Anastasia Dickenson, daughter of John Dickenson of Greenfields, County Dublin, and they had two sons and two daughters; Anastasia died on 20 January 1911 and Ormsby married, secondly (1921), Geraldine Matthews OBE, daughter of William Matthews of Hyères, Var, France, and they had no issue. Ormsby died after a period of ill-health in his Dublin residence on 21 December 1923 and was buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery in Dublin.

Born: 19 July 1849
Died: 21 December 1923
Peter Froggatt

Dictionary of Irish Biography, Royal Irish Academy: Cambridge University Press, 2009, vol. 7, pp.881-2; O’Donnell, Barry (Edit.), Irish Surgeons and Surgery in the Twentieth Century, Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2008, p,293; Lyons, J.B., An Assembly of Irish Surgeons. Dublin: Glendale Press and The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, 1984, pp.17-21; Peter Gatenby, Dublin’s Meath Hospital, 1753-1996, Dublin: Town House, 1996; L.H. Ormsby, Medical History of the Meath Hospital and County Dublin Infirmary, Dublin: Fannin; London: Baillière, Tindall & Cox, 1888; second edition, 1892); R,S,J, Clarke, A Directory of Ulster Doctors (who qualified before 1901). Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation, 2013, vol.II, p.893.