Posted by Admin on 25 July 2011, 12:42 pm

A portrait of James Macartney with his dog shows a handsome, intelligent, and amiable young man with side whiskers and a physiognomy which reveals none of the alleged forceful nature or the irritability caused by the persecution to which he was subjected in later life, and one appropriate for an unbigoted religious man likely to support the Palagian theory of original innocence and to be wary of all dogmatic theology. Unlike many of his class, he approved of compulsory education, and where philosophy was concerned, adhered to no particular school, the latter apparently because his mind was incapable of dealing with abstractions.

Circa 1799, when studying assiduously, although distressed to learn of the Irish rebellion, believing religion was too involved, beyond helping a few fugitives he did not participate in the uprising. And having passed an examination he joined the Royal College of Surgeons of England to become a lecturer in Comparative Anatomy at St Bart’s Hospital. Enunciated with a pronounced provincial accent, his lectures were more comprehensive and systematic than any previously given, and finding no good text-book on the subject he arranged for a translation from the French of Cuvier’s work, of which two volumes were published in 1802.

In 1801 his first visit of many to Shanklin took place. His diaries of that time make amusing reading. Having occupied a cottage adjacent to an empty one, he was when working at night tormented by rats, some of which ran over his table – an invasion that compelled him to change his address. Again on the Island in 1802, he worked undisturbed by vermin but occasionally was called upon to treat Revenue officers and smugglers wounded in fights that occurred near his residence.

The next year, having been offered an appointment in the Royal Radnor Militia, his service as a military surgeon began – its nine-year duration broken when time off was taken for the delivery of London lectures. Military life agreed with him, and he enjoyed the opportunities it gave him to study new diseases. During June and July in 1810 the Militia marched from Milford to Hastings. Succinct phrases in his diary recount incidents en-route involving the rascality of a mayor, embarrassment concerning beds, and the impudence of a chambermaid. August 1811 found the Militia drafted to Ireland in the brig Lord Nelson. It was Macartney’s first return there for fifteen years. In 1912, after the disbandment of the Militia, James wrote articles for Rees’s Cyclopaedia – erudite pieces to which Professor Newton in the Encyclopaedia Britannica has referred. Then, after opposition which he overcame by obtaining a degree of M.D. from St Andrew’s University, he gained a vacant chair in the School of Anatomy and Chirurgery in Dublin University.

The death of Professor Hartigan had left the medical school of Trinity College in a sorry state – a condition rectified by Macartney who soon had seventy-four students (a large number for the university) attending his course, an increase that led to overcrowding. At that time the Old Anatomy House was without running water and was quite inadequate for its purpose. Finally, when it was declared unsafe, an architect was commissioned to design a new building which, when none of Macartney’s suggestions were incorporated, proved to be disappointing – a hundred and sixteen students being accommodated in a room twenty feet square. Costing £4,000, it was located near marshy ground and unhealthily close to slums. Appalled by the bad design and workmanship, Macartney quarrelled with the architect who struck him with his cane. Retaliating, James broke his umbrella on the other’s head.

With no legislation governing the provision of corpses for scientific purposes, the nineteenth century was the heyday for grave-robbers. Even undertakers were ‘resurrectionists’, and in Dublin, where six to eight hundred corpses a year were dissected, the price of a body varied from ten shillings to two pounds. In Scotland ten to twenty guineas were paid, which created an export business run by a Scotsman named Wilson Rae who despatched the dead in piano cases and barrels. Teeth from buried people were used for making dentures. Between 1827 and 1834 James endeavoured to make legal the procuring of cadavers of unclaimed paupers. In 1828 a Bill before Parliament was withdrawn because the Archbishop of Canterbury was its opponent. On one occasion when the ‘resurrectionists’ stole a body from a convent, James, learning of the sacrilege, immediately sent it back. At thirty shillings it would have been a bargain.

Although respected by many learned men (in 1839 he was made a corresponding member of the Paris Royal Academy of Medicine and of the Societé Francaise de Statisique Universelle), throughout his career James was hampered by the jealousy of his peers and, incredibly, by the officiousness of a porter named Cuddy who, by locking a gate, prevented him and his students from having easy access to the Anatomy School – an obstacle it took two years to remove. Cuddy also kept poultry and animals whose noise disturbed lectures.

Then, as now, there was a formidable body of opinion against vivisection, and in order to obtain evidence of cruelty, which James did his utmost to avoid, clergymen came to his lectures. Failing to incriminate him, they attacked him from another angle when a dying student renounced religion because of the materialism he alleged he had learnt from Macartney. After an enquiry which absolved the accused from blame, his students wrote a heartening letter of congratulation. On a visit to England in 1826 he learnt how clergymen interfered with dissection at the London Hospital, knowledge which had the effect of making him suspicious of too-emphatic piety.

New regulations which made it impossible to give at convenient times what he knew to be the essential number of lectures were, in 1837, the last straw, and to the dismay of his students James resigned. Retired, he converted his lecture notes into a book which was published by Longmans in 1838 – a work that a review in The Lancet designated ‘the most original medical work which has appeared since the days of John Hunter’. Four years later, in March 1843, when writing a paper to be read to the College of Physicians, he died in his study at 31 Upper Merrion Street, Dublin. It is said that modern medicine is indebted to him.

T. C. Hudson

© T. C. Hudson.
This article may not be reproduced without prior permission of the author.

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