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Victor Millington Synge (1893 - 1976):

Victor Millington Synge was a prominent Physician who based his career in Dublin; but there is an Ulster connection as his father, Edmund Hatch Synge was for some years a land agent of Kingscourt, Cavan. His wife was Ellen Price. They were an accomplished family: a brother, John Lighton Synge was a mathematician and theoretical physicist with an international reputation and a Fellowship of the Royal Society while the celebrated author playwright John Millington Synge was an uncle.

Victor was born at number 15, Upper Leeson Street, Dublin, He was educated at St Andrew’s College and proceeded to the University of Dublin with a foundation scholarship, in 1915, study experimental science; he won also a Hudson scholarship at the Adelaide Hospital. In February 1916 he joined the Royal Navy Reserve as a surgeon probationer, that is, he had part-completed studies, but was not yet fully qualified. He served on HMS Peterel until demobilisation in late 1917 and returned to University where he completed his studies, graduating MB, BCh, BAO in 1918. He at once became assistant to the Professor of Pathology and remained in that part-time post for three years during which time he proceeded MD in 1919, also obtaining the Diploma in Public Health and the Licentiate in Midwifery. He then spent some time in Europe where be built up an admirable proficiency in French, German, Russian and Norwegian.

Back in Dublin he was appointed as a Pathologist and also a Bacteriologist at Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital (1920-1921). His list of honours and qualifications was lengthening: In 1919 Member of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, and in 1921 Fellow of that Society, when he succeeded JG Moorhead as visiting consultant physician at the Royal City of Dublin in Baggot Street where he was to remain until 1973. In 1923 he was elected to the Chair of Medical Jurisprudence at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland which he held until 1930 when the College elected him to their Chair of Medicine. He stayed in this post only four years as in 1934 he was appointed Ling’s Professor of the Practice at Dublin University, Trinity College – his adored alma mater. He remained in post until 1956 when he was appointed Regius Processor, (this on a full-time basis). In 1073 he retired from the staff of Baggot Street Hospital after over a half-century of Service.

One glitsch: in 1949 he stood for the Presidency of the RCPI and though he topped the poll in the first ballot he was defeated in the second, final vote. He was beyond annoyed – more humiliated. He declined to stand again. However the London Royal College of Surgeons made him a Fellow by appointment – no small consolation.

JB Lyons, himself significant figure in Irish Medicine, listed Synge’s many qualities as a consultant physician but also pointed to his lack of interest in “research”, as he did not see this as suited to an “enquiring mind”. Synge certainly had an enquiring mind but he confined his abilities to the classical clinical examination, with an injection of Sherlockian reasoning. He was possessed of old world courtesy to patients, colleagues and students alike, undisturbed by the advent of modern nor by the excitement of the most modern “special tests” and their creative technologies. McDowell and Webb have commented:

What the school prided itself on at this time ... was the turning-out of efficient and resourceful general practitioners, suitable men for the Army and the Colonial Service as well as for busy suburban practices.

They continue that this

meant the encouragement of efficient teaching at the cost of research and there were few medical graduates of the period who took up research posts.

It could be noted that this period was one of very limited funds and thus very few such posts anyway.

Students, given this scenario, were well taught, none better than those at Synge’s popular hospital teaching sessions; this writer attended many of these. Synge addressed students as either “sir” or “young lady”, though if new the name he used it with appropriate title. The students would note the patient’s history, signs and symptoms and would attempt a diagnosis. Synge would be armed with a blackboard and chalk and would list what students told him; Synge would then list the differential diagnoses. The list would then be gone through and Synge would erase those he though implausible or otherwise unsuitable – he also explained why. He would always leave one on the board and while no student protested, this was often because of Synge’s handwriting (if that is the word). These sessions were popular with students – much preferable to the lecture theatre, where notes were taken, but many felt that “hands – on” ward visit examining real patients were much more instructive.

In summa, he was essentially a scholar and a conscientious general physician with a wide range of knowledge and intellectual interests. These, allied to his essential kindness and courtesy underscored his popularity as did a certain charm and generosity – students in financial difficulties were often supported; bills for professional services were modest, often delayed, even overlooked. His work absorbed him and received much of his time. He was wedded to his wards and had relatively limited interests outside though he liked the "great doors” and most Sundays would ramble in the hills. After his wife’s death and his retirement he spent more and more time in his cottage in Donegal, cultivating his garden (he was interested in botany).

He had married in 1919 Mary Edith Allen of County Wicklow who predeceased him by some three years; they had two sons.

Born: 5 September 1893
Died: 25 February 1976
Peter Froggatt

Richard Froggatt


JB Lyons: A Pride of Professors; The Professors of Medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Dublin, 1999

The Medical Directory

TG Moorhead: A Short History of Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital; Dublin 1942

Davis Coakley: Baggot Street; A Short History of the Royal City of Dublin Hospital, Dublin, Board of Governors of the Hospital, 1995

Obituary, British Medical Journal, 11 July 1976

RB McDowell & DA Webb: Trinity College Dublin 1592-1982: An Academic History, Cambridge University Press, 1982

Personal knowledge