Saturday, 12 December 2015

Medical Practitioners in Early Modern Irish Wills by John Cunningham

The destruction of the Public Records Office of Ireland in the conflagration of 1922 took with it almost all records on the administration of English government in Ireland from the thirteenth century. In this month's blog post, John Cunningham, an Associate Research Fellow on the Wellcome Trust funded project, 'The medical world of early modern England, Wales and Ireland, c. 1500-1715', demonstrates how alternative extant sources can yet throw light on the world of medical practitioners in early modern Ireland.

The Four Courts in Dublin in flames during the Battle of Dublin,
30 June 1922. National Library of Ireland: NLI: HOG57. The Irish
Four Courts was occupied by IRA irregulars from April 1922.
Marking the beginning of the Irish Civil War, on 28 June, Irish
Free-State forces began shelling the Four Courts. On 30 June 1922,
the Public Record Office of Ireland, part of Four Courts Complex,
was destroyed in a massive explosion of stored munitions.
Information relating to the lives and occupations of medical practitioners can be found scattered across a broad range of sources for the history of early modern Ireland. Given the fact that almost all Irish wills were destroyed in 1922, it could be reasonably assumed that the surviving material of this type is of very limited use for the study of practitioners. Fortunately, however, the availability of some useful indexes and the large number of extant abstracts and notes made by genealogists and others allows for the identification of hundreds of medics active in Ireland between the mid-sixteenth century and 1750.

Early Modern Practitioners Project

As part of my work for the Early Modern Practitioners Project at the University of Exeter, I have recently been exploring surviving wills and other testamentary materials. This research will help to inform the Irish content of our project database, which will contain information on many thousands of medical practitioners in early modern England, Ireland and Wales. In this blog post, I will discuss some of the research challenges posed by Irish wills and briefly highlight a number of ways in which they can serve as a useful source for the history of medicine in Ireland.

Irish Wills as a Historical Source

Although the body of fragmentary will data that has survived for early modern Ireland is dwarfed by the sources of that nature extant for England, wills nonetheless constitute a vital source for the study of many aspects of Irish society in that period. At the same time, it must be recognised that will-making was very far from being a universal activity in early modern Ireland, and that women and persons of lower social status are inevitably under-represented. Moreover, many wills from this period had already been lost before the nineteenth century, when greater efforts were made to preserve such documents and to compile useful indexes

Will Index

Title Page of Vicar's Index to
Prerogative Wills.
Post-1922, our insight into a large portion of early modern Irish wills has been confined to index entries. Such indexes are most useful where occupational labels are included alongside names, addresses, and dates, such as in Sir Arthur Vicar's Index to the prerogative wills of Ireland, 1536-1810.1 Roughly 180 medical doctors, apothecaries, barber-surgeons and surgeons are listed in Vicars for the period up to 1750. For diocesan wills, however, the available indexes often contain little or no occupation data. Here, the Dublin wills index published in 1894 forms a notable and valuable exception, listing the names and occupations of around 115 medics active prior to 1750.2

A will index entry can serve as a useful reference point around which to assemble further information relating to individual practitioners, whether from a related will abstract or from a variety of other sources. James Field M.D. provides a useful early example. His will is indexed in Vicars under the year 1624, with his address given as Dublin.3 A corresponding abstract can be found in Sir William Betham's MSS, giving the names of Field's wife and children, and this information is complemented by the further details given in Field's funeral entry.4 This individual can also be found as 'James Fildeus' in the register of medical graduates at Rheims in 1606, the earliest record of a Hibernus occurring in that rich source.5 Some context for Field's involvement in medicine is provided by the fact that his surname was an anglicised form of Ó Fithcheallaigh, a Gaelic hereditary medical family active in west Munster.6 For example, 'William Fihilly of Limerick, physician' had received a grant of 'English liberty' in 1557.7 Another member of this family, Dr John Field, was among those implicated in the 1641 rebellion in Co. Kerry; his estate outside Tralee was confiscated as a result.8

Master of the Barber-Surgeons' Guild

Entry in Vicars for William Kelly (1597).
There are at least two practitioners in Vicars who pre-dated Dr James Field: William Kelly, 'gent', who died in 1597; and John Morphy, 'alderman', who died in 1603.9 Kelly was master of the barber surgeons' guild in Dublin in 1576, the same year that he took on Morphy as an apprentice.10 Morphy in turn became master in 1588, and was elected alderman of Dublin in 1596.11 These examples illustrate one of the pitfalls of relying on will indexes for an era when labels of status and occupation could be both fluid and multiple. Fortunately, details of the lives and deaths of both Kelly and Morphy can be recovered from other sources, not least the records of the barber-surgeons guild preserved in the library of Trinity College Dublin.12 The latter source also sheds some light on the career of Stephen Cradocke, a barber who features in the Dublin diocesan will index under the year 1577.13

Dublin Wills entry for Stephen Cradock, a barber.

'Inventory Attached But No Interesting Names'

When moving from indexes to study more detailed will abstracts and copies, it is necessary to keep in mind the extent to which the latter body of material has been shaped by the priorities of nineteenth and early twentieth-century genealogists and other researchers. A brief note attached to an abstract of a Cloyne will from 1727 is illustrative: 'Inventory attached but no interesting names'.14 My colleague Alan Withey has shown how probate inventories for apothecaries's shops can be used to explore the 'medical marketplace' in early modern Wales. The absence of equivalent material for Ireland is unfortunate.15

Pages from of one Sybil Kirkpatrick's eight notebooks in which
she copied the wills of Irish medical men from originals once
held in the Public Record Office. Royal College of Physicians of
Ireland, Heritage Centre, TPCK/5/3/1.
In most of the relevant manuscripts, it is necessary to pick out the medical wills from among those made by gentlemen, clergymen, merchants, widows, and others. An exception to this is provided by Sybil Kirkpatrick's notebooks preserved in the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland (RCPI), which contain transcripts of medical wills alone. Kirkpatrick's transcripts, made in the Public Record Office of Ireland in 1910-11, have preserved extensive details of forty pre-1750 wills.16 Most of these relate to prominent Dublin-based physicians. They thus complement the rich materials compiled by Sybil's better known brother, Thomas Percy Claude Kirkpatrick, also preserved in the RCPI.

Social Networks

Wills do not usually reveal extensive details about the nature and extent of an individual's medical practice. They can, however, contain useful information on aspects such as social networks, status and wealth, patron-client relationships, book ownership, and succession planning. The latter issue unsurprisingly features in some wills made by members of the Gaelic hereditary medical families. The 1663 will of Gerald Fennell, 'Doctor of Phisicke', demonstrated his concern to ensure that his cousin and namesake would be able to continue the family's long tradition of service to the Butlers. He used his will to recommend the younger doctor to the duke and duchess of Ormond, stating that he bad been 'bredd by me for the service of their house'.17 Similar concern for his family's medical future was shown in the 1728 will of Dr Patrick Shiel of Breandrum, Co. Mayo. He directed that 'unbyassed men' were to decide which of his two nephews, Owen or Patrick, was 'of a superior genius' for the study of medicine. These men were to take account of 'capacity of learning ... gravity of life, probity of manners, good humour and other virtuous qualities'. Shiel's will also reveals marital ties between his family and the Dunlevy or Ultagh family, who had been hereditary physicians to the O'Donnells of Tyrconnell. Shiel himself was closely involved with that branch of the O'Donnells who had relocated to Co. Mayo, in the previous century; he listed Colonel Manus O'Donnell among his 'trusty well beloved friendes'.18

Dublin College of Physicians

Wills can be helpful too for piecing together the relationship that existed between medics. In his will made in 1677, Dr William Hickey mentioned Dr Thomas Connor.19 Other sources show that Connor was Hickey's son-in-law, and that both men were active in the Dublin College of Physicians in the 1670s.20 Hickey's will also made reference to the surgeon Nicholas Gernon, who evidently provided him with medical care in his final illness. Gernon was a native of Dublin who had been admitted to freedom in 1644.21 When he in turn died around 1692, his widow Bridget remarried to Francis Dempsey, another Dublin surgeon.22 Another of those active in the College of Physicians in the 1670s was Dr Edmund Meara.23 Decades earlier, in 1638, he had been one of the witnesses to the will of John Verdon, MD, of Dublin.24 A decade earlier again, Verdon and Edmund's father, Dr Dermot Meara, had been involved in efforts to establish a college of physicians in Dublin.25 Another of the witnesses to Verdon's will in 1638 was the barber-surgeon Simon Cullen, while the apothecary Stephen Hore was appointed executor. Little is known of Verdon, but his surname suggests that he originated in Co. Louth, a likelihood reinforced by the reference he made to his 'loving cousin Sir Christopher Bellew'.26

Medical Witnesses

Extract from Ferrar's description of Dr Hall's Alms House.
History of Limerick (1787).
One of the trends evident across the period is the appearance of medics as beneficiaries, as executors, or as witnesses to wills of persons of high social status. Given that medics were trusted by their patients and that they were likely to be present when wills were being made shortly before death, this phenomenon is not surprising. A mid-sixteenth century example is provided by the will of Morrough O'Brien, first earl of Thomond, whose 1551 will was witnessed by 'Master Doctor Nelan'.27 Other instances involving noble families include James Fennell, a physician who witnessed the earl of Ormond's will in 1614, and Dr Jeremie Hall, who witnessed the earl of Orrery's will in 1681 and was subsequently appointed an executor by the dowager countess in 1688.28 A full transcript of Hall's will also survives; it provided for the foundation of almshouses and schools both in Limerick and in Boothtown, Yorkshire. This document, containing extensive details relating to his building plans, his books, legacies to Trinity College, Lord Powerscourt and the earls of Orrery, Donegall and Stafford, and various other matters, would have taken some time to compose.29 It certainly lacks the urgency of the will of the Cromwellian Lieutenant-Colonel John Grey, made as he lay dying of wounds following the failed assault on Clonmel in May 1650. Those present included the surgeon John Hoggsfleshe, to whom Grey left £5.30 An episode of altogether more intense medical care is suggested by the 1715 will of Henry Meredith Esq., of Newtown, Co. Meath. It was witnessed by three fellows of the King and Queen's College of Physicians of Ireland: Duncan Cuming; William Smith; and Edward Worth.31

Obscure Practitioners

While figures such as Cuming and Worth are relatively well-known, wills and related data can also provide vital evidence for the existence of far more obscure practitioners who may not have left any other trace in the archive. Loughlen Keaghry, 'Dr of Physicke', made his will at Laragh Beg near Athenry in November 1730; unfortunately, I have not yet come across any other reference to him.32 The Hugh Fergus who witnessed his will was presumably the MD of that name, a member of another of the Gaelic hereditary medical families that remained active into the eighteenth century.33 Another of the obscure individuals to whom I have so far only found one reference is Millisent Alwright, a Dublin midwife who died around 1740.34 It is likely that Keaghry and Alwright will remain among the very many practitioners about whom very little can now be discovered. In many other cases, however, the combination of will data with material drawn from a wide variety of other sources can enable us to learn more about the practitioners who populated the medical world of early modern Ireland.

Can You Help?

To date, my efforts to gather data relating to practitioners have been supported by a number of scholars of early modern Ireland, who have given advice on sources or kindly shared the findings of their own research. As it is not possible for one individual to consult every source, such collective endeavour is essential to maximising the value of our project database, which will be open access and fully available online. I would be very happy to hear from anyone who wishes to contribute advice or information. I can be contacted at

Dr John Cunningham

Dr John Cunningham is an Associate Research Fellow on the Wellcome Trust funded project, 'The Medical World of Early Modern England, Wales and Ireland, c. 1500-1715'. His research focus on this project is on medical practitioners in early modern Ireland. John previously held an Irish Research Council CARA Postdoctoral Mobility Fellowship, during which time he spent two years at the University of Freiburg and a year at Trinity College Dublin (TCD). His project was entitled 'Ireland and Bohemia in the seventeenth century'. He completed his PhD at NUI Galway in 2009. His dissertation was entitled 'Transplantation to Connacht, 1641-1680: theory and practice'. John has taught history in Galway and Dublin, including a seminar course at TCD called 'The Nobility in Early Modern Ireland'. His research interests include early modern Britain and Ireland, the history of medicine, and Central Europe in the early modern period.

Project Podcast

You can listen to a podcast about the project, 'The Medical World of Early Modern England, Wales and Ireland, c. 1500-1715', for BBC History Magazine, from 29 November 2012.

1 Arthur Vicars (ed.), Index to the prerogative wills of Ireland, 1536-1810 (Dublin, 1897).
2 Deputy Keeper of Public Records in Ireland (hereafter DKPRI), Twenty-sixth report (Dublin, 1894).
3 Vicars (ed.), Prerogative wills, p. 166.
4 National Library of Ireland (hereafter NLI), Genealogical Office (hereafter GO) MS 225, p. 39; NLI, GO MS 79, p. 117.
5 List of Rheims Graduates, kindly supplied by Professor Laurence Brockliss.
6 Nollaig Ó Muraile, 'The hereditary medical families of Gaelic Ireland', Irish Texts Society Seminar, University College Cork, 7 November 2015. I am grateful to Dr Marc Caball and Dr Declan Downey for their insights into the Field family.
7 Fiants of Philip & Mary, no. 140, in DKPRI, Ninth report (Dublin, 1877), p. 73.
8 Deposition of Stephen Love, 2 February 1644, TCD MS 828, fos 124r-127v; Field, Dr John, The Down Survey of Ireland, Trinity College Dublin (2013).
9 Vicars (ed.), Prerogative wills, pp 264, 337.
10 Barber surgeons, Book of enrolment of apprentices and journeymen, 1530-1607, TCD MS 1447/6, fos 30v-31r.
11 Ibid., fo. 40v; Calendar of the ancient records of Dublin, ed. John T. Gilbert and Rosa Gilbert (19 vols, Dublin 1889-1944), ii, 306.
12 Barber surgeons, Book of enrolment of apprentices and journeymen, 1530-1607, TCD MS 1447/6; NLI, GO MS 65, pp 6, 82; NLI, GO MS 225, pp 188, 264; Fiants of Elizabeth, no. 3747, in DKPRI, Thirteenth report (Dublin, 1881), p. 143.
13 DKPRI, Twenty-sixth report (Dublin, 1894), p. 196; NLI, GO MS 290, p. 70.
14 NLI, GO MS 534, p. 62.
15 Alun Withey, '"Persons that live remote from London": apothecaries and the medical marketplace in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Wales', Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 85 (2011), pp 222-247.
16 Sybil Kirkpatrick will notebooks, Heritage Centre, RCPI, TPCK 5/3/1.
17 Prerogative will book, 1664-84, NAI, MFGS 41/1, fos 99A-100B.
18 Prerogative will book, 1728-9, NAI, MFGS 41/4, fos 359B-364A.
19 Sybil Kirkpatrick will notebooks, Heritage Centre, RCPI, TPCK 5/3/1, i, p. 71.
20 Account book beginning 21 January 1672, Heritage Centre, RCPI, MS 3/3/1; NLI, GO MS 257, p. 143; NAI, RC 6/3, p. 23.
21 'Nichus Gernon', Ancient Freemen of Dublin Database, Library and Heritage, Dublin City Council.
22 NLI, GO MS 258, p. 70.
23 Account book beginning 21 January 1672, Heritage Centre, RCPI, MS 3/3/1.
24 NLI, Reports on private collections, no. 32, pp 547-548.
25 Marian Lyons, 'The role of the graduate physicians in professionalising medical practice in Ireland, c. 1619-1654', in James Kelly and Fiona Clark (eds), Ireland and medicine in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Farnham, 2010), p. 25.
26 NLI, Reports on private collections, no. 32, pp 547-548.
27 Brian Ó Dálaigh, 'A comparative study of the wills of the first and fourth earls of Thomond', North Munster Antiquarian Journal, 34 (1992), pp 57-59.
28 T. Blake Butler, Ormond Deeds, viii(Typescript in NLI MSS Reading Room), D3580; NLI, GO MS 532, pp 24-26.
29 Sybil Kirkpatrick will notebooks, Heritage Centre, RCPI, TPCK 5/3/1, i, pp 40-57.
30 NLI, GO MS 530, p. 142.
31 Registry of deeds: abstracts of wills, ed. P. Beryl Eustace (3 vols, Dublin 1954-84), i, no. 101.
32 NLI GO MS 425, p. 109.
33 Vicars (ed.), Prerogative of wills, p. 165; Diarmaid Ó Catháin, 'John Fergus MD: eighteenth-century doctor, book collector and Irish scholar', Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 118 (1988), pp 139-162.
34 NLI, GO MS 257, p. 225.