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On Dr William Smyth 1859-1901

By Dr Kevin Quinn
Arranmore Island

When I was appointed as GP in Arranmore in 1984 I was of course told tales of my predecessors of whom there had been many in the previous 25 years, but it was the folklore centred around one doctor, Dr William Smyth from a previous century that most captured my attention. This was in part rekindled when on the Donegal GP training scheme we were discussing the qualities required of a good professional, when doctors are exposed to an epidemic, how they might put their own health at risk, this had occurred at the time of H1N1 and related to various other infections such as SARS. In this short talk I hope to relate the story of Dr William Smyth who was willing to put his own life at risk to save others.

William Smyth was born on March 30 1859, the eldest son of Dr Charles Smyth. Dr Charles Smyth was the Dispensary Doctor in Mountcharles for 40 years. The family resided in Stonepark a picturesque house close to Mountcharles from where his father ran his dispensary practice. He was young Willie’s role model in life and he spent a good deal of time on calls with him in the scattered dispensary district of approximately 30 miles diameter. At the time the area was poverty stricken, as was the rest of southwest donegal with little of the wealth that we know today. By all accounts Dr Charles Smyth provided great service for little financial gain.

Willie was educated by his parents until ten years of age and following some tutorage by a Mr Willis finished his schooling in the Royal and Prior. During William’s 4 years in the Royal School Raphoe, he contracted typhoid fever and was brought home to be cared for by his old nurse. Thankfully he made a full recovery. He was diligent at school and was regarded as Mr Weir’s ‘good boy’ and with his guidance he was prepared for entrance into Medical School in Trinity College.

During his school years he developed a fond attachment to Burtonport and the surrounding area where he stayed with his cousin Willie Hammond at Lackbeg House ( the agents house) and also played with the children of Mr Keown  a local merchant one of whose children he would later marry.

By the time he entered Medical School William had grown into a fine young man with a huge physical presence ,6’ 2” and very broad, he held the championship at Trinity in long jump and also was a first rate boxer and football player. Whilst not academically distinguished he finished his course a year before the minimum age for granting diplomas. He was still walking the hospitals when a virulent case of small-pox occurred so bad that the house physician needed assistance. William Smyth volunteered and was accepted to help with the case. The patient a woman, on seeing how young William was, begged the house physician not to let him go near her. William persisted and during the course of her treatment he contracted small-pox. Fortunately he made a full recovery from what turned out to be a light attack.

Finishing his hospital course, there was still a year before full qualification. This time he spent at home in Mountcharles helping his father. Again he never refused to attend any of the ill, after attending a family who had a bad case of Diphtheria his father said he didn’t have to visit again but he insisted and accompanied his father on all his return visits to the house. On receiving his diploma he was appointed to the dispensary of Ardara at the very young age of 21.

During his time in Ardara he further developed his passion for the sea. He would steal away at night to go fishing with the fishermen in their all night fishing in Donegal bay for herring.One day he was sailing from Portnoo to Ardara when the boat was caught in a squall and capsized, his great physical strength saved him allowing him to swim to shore a distance few men of his time could make. He learnt to become a master sailor afterwards and instigated the annual regatta which was held in Arran Roads, the sea between Arranmore and Rutland Island, when he was later established as Doctor in Burtonport.

Typhus is caused by Rickettsia prowazekii and spread by body lice from person to person. It causes headaches, chills, high fever and rash. It can remain viable in dead lice for weeks. Also known as ‘Jail fever’ Typhus was common in the impoverished communities of west Donegal in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Indeed it was responsible for many of the deaths associated with the famine. It also killed an estimated 3 million Russians in the World War I and of course was responsible for many of the deaths in the death camps of the Second World War.

In the Rosses epidemics were commonly associated with the return of workers from Scotland who had been housed in the overcrowded and insanitary conditions of the bothies. So as well as bringing home their earnings they brought a very unwelcome gift to their families and communities. In 1882 there was an outbreak that was clearly traced to the importation of used clothing from Glasgow. During that time the doctor for the district was a Dr Spencer of Roshine Lodge, Burtonport.
Such was the fear of people in touching the bodies, he and the local priest had to place the dead into the coffins. Dr Spencer contracted Typhus after visiting a man on Inishcoo island, he had been housed in a tent outside of the house. He returned home to Roshine house and died in a high fever.

After Dr Spencer died his post was advertised and among the applicants was one young Willie Smyth. His chances of being elected by the board was low. He was very young, a committed Loyalist in a very nationalist area and a protestant. In his favour were his well known attributes, he was well liked in both his fathers practice and in his own in Ardara where he attended his sick dutifully, and was known to have great strength and courage essentials for the post now to be filled.
Supporters and opponents seemed equally balanced but it was the local Catholic Priest who spoke highly of him and told a story in his favour ; in the few months in Ardara William Smyth had been summoned to an urgent case, the house was half cut off by a long arm of the sea a half mile wide. He did not hesitate for a moment but putting his horse in the sea he swam him across and was quickly at the patients side. When asked why did he run the risk, the horse may have drowned he said but I would have got across myself. The story counted and his election was secured by a majority of one.

So Dr William Smyth moved to the Dispensary District of Burtonport and the islands. From Roshine Lodge in Burtonport he had a clear view across Arran Roads of Arranmore island. He was not long in the house when he married his childhood friend Miss E. McKeown and they married in April 1883 in Donegal town.

During his years in Burtonport he worked hard as a Dispensary Doctor but also was interested in the development of the community and campaigned to improve the lot of the local fisherman in the development of the local fishery of herring. He was known for his kindness and genoristy, he often took food from Roshine Lodge to his patients to aid in their recovery. He attended the dispensaries in Burtonport, Dunglow, Annagry and on the island of Arranmore. It was his work on the islands that combined his skills as a doctor and as a boatsman. As a boatsman he was well aware of the dangers of the sea and campaigned for a lifeboat station which was established on Arranmore in 1890 and he acted as the station’s honorary secretary. He maintained his religious beliefs and helped in the building of a chapel in Burtonport just below Roshine Lodge.

In 1901 another typhus outbreak occurred in Arranmore. Dr Smyth hoped it was of the mild kind. The people on Arranmore were naturally frightened and gave the stricken house wide birth. Dr Smyth decided he would attend to the patients himself to limit the spread of infection. He would also try and get them removed to Glenties hospital where they would have better chance of recovery. Day by day the doctor rowed over by himself. People avoided him in fear of contracting the disease. Alone he moored his boat at chapel strand he walked alone often heavily laden with supplies to the afflicted house. The family reluctantly consented to move to Glenties, they had feared their house would be burnt down if  they left to stop the spread of the infection. He had to beg the local Board to purchase a boat big enough to transport the patients and with the help of Dr McCarthy  who was the medical officer of health for Donegal rowed the boat across and pick up the family. They skirted the islands of Inniscoo and Rutland to an awaiting ambulance in Burtonport.

Dr Smyth contracted Typhus several days after his last heroic deed. He died shortly after in his home at Roshine Lodge in a high fever. Willie Smyth had a strong perspective on duty but not by legal obligation it was not so much of what he must do but what he could do for others. He felt that anything he could do for others he was bound to do and in that he rejoiced. He is buried in the grounds of Dungloe Church of Ireland Chapel.

In 1976 a plaque was erected to the memory of Dr William Smyth by the Donegal Historical Society on the old lifeboat station in Leabgarrow, Arranmore island. There is a stained glass window commemorating his heroic deed in the Library of the Ulster Medical Society in Belfast, in Queens University. In the history of the society it gives praise to the role of Dr Smyth and other dispensary doctors but leaves the last quote to the Irish News of  the 20th July, 1937 which reflects the views of how dispensary doctors were valued by their patients. "The dispensary medical officer may not have the glamour of the surgeon or the renown of the specialist. He may be one of the forgotten men of medicine, moving obscurely about a country district on an unremitting round of duty, night and day, in fine weather and in foul, his name achieving the accolade of print but once a year, when he applies for his annual holidays to the local board, but ultimately he is the guardian of the health of the people. These men often lead an arduous life, harassed by circumstances, red tape, ignorance, but on the whole they put a lot more into their work than they ever get out of it, do a lot more than they are ever thanked for, perform wonders in adversity that are forgotten at soon as they are done. They are the servants of the poor, outposts against disease, indispensable units of our social organisation.”

References: A Hero of Donegal, Dr William Smyth by Frederick Douglas Howe.
The Ulster Medical Journal PUBLISHED ON BEHALF OF THE ULSTER MEDICAL SOCIETY VOLUME 52 1983 No. 1 THE POOR MAN'S DOCTOR:
THE RISE AND FALL OF THE DISPENSARY SYSTEM IN
ULSTER

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