Posted by Admin on 25 July 2011, 12:43 pm

For people old enough to have memories of the Isle of Wight as it was sixty or seventy years ago, there will be no difficulty in realising the attractions it offered to draw notable people to it at an even earlier date – some to stay permanently, others to reside for varying lengths of time and then return whence they came. In the latter category we must place James Macartney, M.D., F.R.S. who came from Ireland and lived in Shanklin. Regrettably, his addresses in what Mr Michael Lister, the County Reference Librarian at the time of writing, has told me was then a small fishing village with about a hundred inhabitants cannot be found.

Although his name should be familiar to the medical profession, until I was given a second-hand copy of Alexander Macalister’s biography I had never heard of him. The book, incidentally, published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1900, had half its pages in an uncut condition – presumably evidence that the previous owner found it uninteresting.

Apart from Macalister’s book, an account of his career in the Dictionary of National Biography, and an article dealing with his methods in The Lancet, information concerning him is scarce, and at the outset a researcher is confronted with a contradiction, the first work naming his father as James, a son of Andrew; the second stating Andrew to be his father. In this case I think we should believe Macalister, who tells us James senior married a Miss Maxwell, the daughter of the Reverend John Maxwell, an intellectual lady accomplished in Latin and Greek. There were six children – four girls and two boys, of whom James junior was the youngest.

Born in Armagh in 1770, James was not robust but intelligent, and even at five showed signs of the seriousness that was to turn him into an honest but somewhat humourless man. At the age of eight ophthalmia nearly blinded him for a year, and memories of the primitive medical treatment he endured remained with him all his life. With poor eyesight restricting his ability to learn, at nine he could not read. Later a mild attack of smallpox was another handicap. A little primary education enabled him, at twelve, to read fairy tales. Sent to a writing school, he made little progress, but when removed to the Classical School of Armagh, of which Dr Gruber White was the Principal, he learnt Latin with ease. Then, once again, misfortune interrupted his schooling for several months when a snowball damaged one of his eyes. A short time at a private school run by a Mr Dogherty followed his recovery, after which he was tutored at home by Dogherty’s son. Macalister tells us he showed no aptitude for mathematics which he did not attempt until he was fifteen. A year later his formal education ceased. He then spent his time gardening, doing carpentry, and what his biographer ambiguously terms mechanical work. From a regimental bandmaster he learnt the rudiments of music.

In spite of his delicate health, being tall for his age, at ten he enlisted in a volunteer brigade which, in 1778, was formed to protect his native land from pirates. For exemplary conduct he received attention from Lord Charlemont, the Commander-in-Chief, who invited him into his home where the ladies doted on him. At sixteen his thoughts again turned to a military career. This his father would not allow.

In 1779, partly recovering from grief caused by his mother’s death in 1778, he went to Newry to work for his cousins, Andrew and Hugh Carlile, in whose office he became a proficient businessman, and while there he acted as a superintendent of a Sunday school. Incongruously, considering the latter role, he formed a company of National Guards which, in defiance of the Law, he drilled nocturnally in the Market House.

He then met and fell in love with a Miss Ekenhead, which probably put an end to his soldiering; but when he proposed marriage she would not accept him – a disappointment that made him decide to become a surgeon. This, he thought, would make him callous and proof against further heartaches. Apparently it did not. It did, however, launch him in a profession in which he was to reach the top.

Death from apoplexy terminated his father’s life in 1790, and before starting an apprenticeship for his chosen profession James went to live with his two surviving brothers and to run Rose Brook Farm and Ballyrea Farm, both of which had been owned by James senior.

In 1792, as today, Catholics (known as Defenders) and Protestants (Peep-o-day Boys) fought for supremacy. Involved in the conflict James, in 1793, formed in Armagh a branch of the Protestant organisation called the Society of United Irishmen.

To prepare for the Apothecaries Classical Examination, passing which was essential for men wishing to be indentured, James moved to Dublin the following year, severing his link with the S.U.I. which by that time was inclined to be revolutionary. And, having passed the examination, he became apprenticed to Professor Hartigan, and at the College of Surgeons became the best dissector of his year.

Again thinking of marriage, he was drawn towards a Miss Singer, whom eventually he thought too thin. It is not surprising, therefore, that during the Christmas vacation at Newry he renewed his relationship with Miss Ekenhead who, this time, returned his affection and married him in 1795; from which time he abjured politics and concentrated on his medical studies.

A year later, seeking better instruction than that which was available in Dublin, he came to London where he attended lectures in Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, Zoology, Physiology, and Botany, given by eminent men including Humphry Davy. At Guy’s Hospital he acted as a dresser for Mr Lucas, and for three years studied under top medical men, one of whom was the renowned Dr Abernethy. He took also a course in veterinary surgery. Much of what he had learnt in Ireland had to be forgotten. Even so, ignorance still made surgery a hazardous business for patients. On one occasion when a woman’s arm was to be amputated because the surgeons could not stop the blood flowing from the wound, James advised them to ligature the radial artery and thus saved the arm.

Still unqualified when his apprenticeship ended in 1798, Macartney was employed by Abernethy to demonstrate at St Bartholomew’s Hospital – work for which he was paid £50 per annum. Overworked, for he not only taught anatomy until 1800 but commenced an illustrated treatise on surgical and topographical anatomy (a work he abandoned on learning Alexander Walker was writing a similar book ) by 1799 he was too ill to walk without a stick, and was compelled to go to Wales to recover.

To be continued.

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

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