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Robert Henry Woods, M.B.
(1865 – 1938)

Extract from Journal of the Irish College of Physicians and Surgeons
Vol. 2: No. 2. October 1972
Sir Robert Woods
An early Irish Biophysicist
C. S. Breathnach
Department of Physiology, University College, Dublin

Born in Tullamore in 1865, Robert Henry Woods was educated at Wesley College and Trinity College Dublin where he shone in experimental science before taking a first class moderatorship in experimental physics in 1887. Already he had entered the School of Physic (1885) and in 1889 after qualifying in medicine he was appointed demonstrator in anatomy. Two years later, when awarded the Surgical Travelling Prize of Dublin University, he chose otolaryngology as his speciality and after his training returned to settle in Dublin, where he became the first surgeon to devote himself exclusively to a branch of the art, thereby conspiring to convert it into a science. The Richmond’s gain was Trinity’s loss.

In 1893 he became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, of which he was later member, secretary and president of the Council. His leadership in throat surgery is Dublin was recognised internationally and this recognition led to his election as president of the British Laryngological Society. In 1913 his alma mater bestowed on him an honorary M.Ch. From the public orator’s introduction (original in Latin, English translation in Irish Times, 27 June 1913), however, it is difficult to decide whether the precipitating factor was his lately received knighthood or the recent marvel of an ‘original and most effectual method of cure’ which consisted of the insertion of chords of brass (made by himself) to replace the vocal chords.

It was about this time too that Woods became embroiled in medical politics. Lloyd George’s National Health Insurance Scheme of 1911 was objectionable in one or another way to the fragmented profession in Ireland, represented as it was by the Royal Colleges, the Irish Medical Association, the British Medical Association (of which there were five branches in Ireland and to which an Irish Secretary, Dr. Tom Hennessy, had been appointed). At a meeting in July 1913 in the Royal College of Surgeons in St. Stephen’s Green the ranks closed to form the Conjoint or Irish Medical Committee, the joint secretaries being Dr. Hennessy and Mr. Gick, secretary of the Irish Medical Association.

Professor R. J. Johnstone of Belfast and Arthur White and Maurice Hayes of Dublin and Doctors Joseph Power (Ardfinnan) and PO.J. McNamara (Kilmallcok) also served as officers, but it was Woods, patently the member whose interests were least likely to be affected by an Insurance Scheme, who was chosen to preside over the sometimes stormy proceedings. In the event the scheme never functioned properly in Ireland.

From medical politics it was a short step into the public arena and in the Sinn Fein election in 1918 Sir Robert was returned as one of the representatives of Dublin University as an Independent.  He spoke infrequently in the House where the air of unreality in the long debates on the Government of Ireland Act in 1920 provoked him to remind his auditors that the King’s writ no longer ran in Southern Ireland. When in 1921 General Macready, Commander of the British Forces in Ireland, sought to gain information about wounded soldiers of the republic from their medical attendants, Woods spoke out firmly on behalf of the profession and its tradition of confidence – the military order was never carried out. After the change of Government he took no further part in public affairs. Thereafter he devoted himself to his speciality and to entertaining his friends. A connoisseur and collector he was also a sculptor able to catch a likeness as his bust of James Hicks, cabinet-maker, was widely acknowledged to be. After retiring from active practice Woods lived out his years in true patrician fashion at his home in Ballybrack, where he died on 6 September 1938.

Robert Rowan Woods, M.B.
(1903 – 1971)
Robert Rowan Woods was at Shrewsbury School from 1916 to 1921. He followed his father, Sir Robert Woods, in his career choice and entered TCD medical school in 1921. He was secretary of the Trinity Trust.