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Book Launch of 'Medicine in Trinity College Dublin' by Davis Coakley

Saloon, Provost's House

01 May 2014

Colleagues, Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

You’re all most welcome to the Saloon in the Provost’s House for the launch of this long-awaited book.

This is an important book for the College. It’s a full, comprehensive up-to-date history of medicine in Trinity, and it builds on the wonderful celebrations of the tercentenary of the Medical School in 2011. It’s issued under the Trinity College imprint and it is, I’m sure everyone will agree, a triumph of design and conception, and a very attractive book indeed.

It’s a publication which everyone involved with can be proud of. It enhances the College and we’ve already heard back from graduates of our Medical School who pre-ordered the book. One of them has mailed the College (I quote) that “the splendid copy of the book has arrived safely and was worth the long gestation period”.

I’m interested in the title Davis has chosen for his work – not ‘The School of Medicine’ in Trinity College Dublin, but simply ‘Medicine’. I didn’t realise until I read this book that a hundred years before the School of Medicine was founded, the Statutes of the University had already established conditions to be fulfilled for a doctorate in medicine. Candidates had to ‘attend at least three dissections, cure at least four diseases, and have a thorough knowledge of drugs whether simple or compound’. A medical fellowship was first filled in 1618. So medicine was a part of the Trinity education much earlier than I had thought.

Trinity was also instrumental in developing the practise of medicine in Dublin: in 1667 the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland was established under the auspices of Trinity College Dublin. Twenty-five years later a new charter made the Royal College legally independent, but maintained a special relationship between the two.

And in 1711, of course, the Anatomy House was opened on the site now occupied by the Berkeley Library, and Trinity’s School of Medicine began its long and distinguished history.

What must strike anyone reading this book is the role that philanthropy played in the early years of the College and of the School of Medicine.

The Royal College of Physicians was first housed in a building on Dame Street, belonging to the College, called Trinity Hall. This building was in a state of disrepair but John Stearne, one of the College’s Senior Fellows who became the first president of Trinity Hall, gave a hundred pounds ‘from his own purse’ to refurbish the building.

Anatomy House was built thanks to a bequest, also of a hundred pounds, from a Widow Parsons. And the notable physician, Sir Patrick Dun, made provision in his will in 1711 to support three professors in the College of Physicians, to be appointed jointly by the Provost and the President of the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland. 

From the start, Trinity’s School of Medicine worked inter-dependently with hospitals in Dublin city, a tradition that continues to this day with St James’s and Tallaght Hospitals. Teaching hospitals connected with Trinity through the ages include Sir Patrick Dun’s, Baggot Street, St Patrick’s, Mercer’s, Dr Steeven’s, the Adelaide, and the Meath. These hospitals, which served the needs of the people of Dublin, also came about as a result of philanthropy - they were founded thanks to wills, bequests and voluntary contributions.

Philanthropy was less prominent in the 20th century, which saw increased government and exchequer funding. Of late however, there has been some return to the age of philanthropy. I acknowledge the important role of alumni, and of Trusts and grant boards, in the recent development of medicine in Trinity. We would not be in the position we are in today without the support of our generous donors, such as Dr Stanley Quek, graduate of 1972 of the School of Medicine, who has been magnificently generous in contributing to the costs of our new state-of-the-art Biomedical Sciences Institute.  

This book is a delight to read. It is informative about the clinical and teaching developments, but also gives a flavour of the characters and the periods. And it situates the development of our medical research and teaching within a wider European and global context, which I found immensely useful.

Davis, of course, is both doctor and writer, an expert on medical gerontology as well as on Oscar Wilde – so he is unusually well-qualified to write accessibly about medicine.

To read this book is to get a sense of the history of medicine, the history of Trinity College, and also the history of Ireland. I was moved, as anyone must be, by the description of the work of those great physicians, William Stokes and Robert Graves, during the famine.

Davis quotes from a lecture Graves gave his students during those terrible years in which he told them that “to explain the origin of poverty and to account for the scarcity of provisions” is not the duty of statistical medicine. “The physician,” he says, “must alleviate the effects without discussing the causes of misery and vices”, but – and here he suddenly veers - “the physician” he says “owes it to society – he owes it to the country – to proclaim aloud the existence of the evil.”

That’s a message which resonates, a message which I like to think we are still imparting to our students in all our faculties: strive to become an expert in your discipline, strive to use your expertise to address specific needs, but do not forget the bigger picture, do not lose sight of how the running of society may be affecting your discipline. Do not forget that, as well as being a doctor or scientist or historian or whatever, you are also a citizen. 

That was Graves’ message, that was Stokes’ message, and it’s ours today - and by ‘citizen’ we don’t just mean of this country, but of the world. We know that life on this planet is interdependent. It is right to take on responsibility for each other – and to speak of global citizenship.

And indeed the School of Medicine is particularly ‘global’. It has always had a strongly international profile of staff and students, and its research is felt around the world.

It’s always good to end on a high note and Davis is fortunate in being able to do this. The School of Medicine is a great success story for Trinity and for Ireland. Recent achievements include:

  • TILDA, the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing,
  • the new Biomedical Sciences Institute;
  • the Trinity Centre for Health Sciences at Tallaght Hospital,
  • the proposed new Children’s Hospital in St James’s,
  • and the Academic Health Sciences Centre, THI.

And those are just our biggest initiatives. There’s a happy sense in the final chapter of trying to hit a moving target – of there being too much activity and too many developments to possibly be able to keep up with them all.

This is a history book, but the history is still in the making. The book ends with the lovely ode which Iggy McGovern composed for the Tercentenary. It’s a particularly clever ode because it references the famous poem, ‘Begin’ by Trinity’s ‘poet laureate’, Brendan Kennelly. And it also manages to be the perfect encomium for this most constantly resurgent and energetic of Schools. The ode ends:

With opportunity on every side
What better end can poetry provide
Than this, the College poet’s wise refrain:
Begin (something insists), begin again!

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Last updated 2 May 2014 by Email: Provost.