James McDonnell – The Father of Belfast Medicine

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James McDonnell Celtic Cross Memorial
James McDonnell Memorial

James McDonnell Background & Early Life

James McDonnell was born near the small County Antrim town of Cushendall on 14th April 1763. His parents were Michael Roe McDonnell and Elizabeth Jane Stewart from Ballintoy. The McDonnell family were from the ancient line of the Earls of Antrim. Michael and Elizabeth had three sons, James was the middle boy.

James attended the David Manson School in Donegall Street Belfast. He also learned the classics under the Rev Nicholas Garnet. Subsequently he studied medicine at Edinburgh University, graduating in 1784, aged 22. Returning to Belfast, James McDonnell took up residence at 13 Donegall Place.

Belfast Street Directory 1819 James McDonnell Listing in Merchants, Traders etc
Belfast Street Directory 1819 James McDonnell Listing in Merchants, Traders etc

The Belfast Dispensary and Fever Hospital

From the 1790’s James was concerned with establishing hospital facilities within the city to address the lack of medical facilities for the poor of Belfast. His early attempts met with failure but in 1797 he co-founded the Belfast Dispensary and Fever Hospital in Factory Row (now Berry Street). This was very successful and moved in 1799 to West Street.

“The last ten years of the eighteenth century in Belfast were years of crowded life, political and intellectual, and it was during this period that the philanthropy, the foresight and the enthusiasm of McDonnell succeeded in laying the foundation of the Medical School by the establishment of the Belfast Dispensary. Previous to this the only medical relief in the town to the indigent was rendered by the Belfast Charitable Institution in Clifton Street, which, however, was limited in proportion to its means and accommodation. As a consequence many of the poor received no medical treatment at all, and to remedy this was the aim of the founders of the Dispensary”

Samuel Simms, Ulster Medical Journal Vol 1 No 34 1932

The General Hospital in Frederick Street

McDonnell worked tirelessly in the hospital and for his patients, as well as endeavouring to raise funds. In 1817 the hospital moved again, this time to Frederick Street.

“In 1807, on a sum of nearly £200 being granted to the Dispensary and Hospital of Belfast, the question of erecting a suitable building was raised and, eventually, on June 5th, 1815 the Marquis of Donegall laid the first stone of the General Hospital in Frederick Street”

Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out 1946

This building had 100 beds; the hospital plus district dispensaries cost in total £5,000. McDonnell was convinced that fever patients should be treated in hospital conditions to prevent the spread of the disease. Typhus in particular, was the scourge of Belfast, during epidemics it is calculated, about a quarter of the population of the city was infected.

The Fever Hospital nursed the town’s victims and endeavoured to contain this highly infectious disease. This charitable enterprise continued to grow to meet the needs of the poor of Belfast and was the forerunner of the modern Royal Victoria Hospital.

Belfast Street Directory 1852, General Hospital Address on Frederick Street
Belfast Street Directory 1852, General Hospital on Frederick Street

Belfast Academical Institution

James was also one of the founding fathers of Belfast Academical Institution in 1810. His ambition was to establish a medical department within the school which would work in partnership with the hospital to train new doctors.

To facilitate this he negotiated deals, raised funds and oversaw the purchase of the former army barracks in Barrack Street for hospital use. In October 1835 the Faculty of Medicine was opened. It must have been with great paternal pride that James saw his son John employed as a professor of surgery in the new medical school.

Belfast Medical Society

James was also one of four doctors responsible for reviving the Belfast Medical Society. This organisation founded in 1806, had fallen into abeyance by 1814. The renewed society amassed a large collection of medical books invaluable for trainee medical staff, wrote papers and discussed new ideas and techniques. The society later became the Ulster Medical Society.

Contribution to Belfast Cultural Life

Belfast Reading Society

James McDonnell had a wide knowledge and varied interests and was an important and popular figure in the cultural life of Belfast.

“McDonnell’s cultural interests were literary, linguistic, antiquarian and musical, and focussed especially on Celtic traditions”

Peter Froggatt

McDonnell helped form the Belfast Reading Society in 1788, now the Linenhall Library. On 23rd October 1801 he founded and was an active member of the Belfast Literary Society and in 1832 he joined the Belfast Natural History Society.

“He gathered around him the great spirits of the age, and no contemporary of any note in Britain was ignorant of his profound learning and distinguished name. It would seem, indeed, that so great and varied was his intellectual capacity, that he was enabled, almost single-handed to stamp a literary fame upon the entire locality….

His memory was of the highest order; and no subject of any importance, past or present, in any age or country, seemed beyond his grasp”

A G Malcolm, History of the General Hospital 1851

Belfast Harp Festival

As children the McDonnell boys had been taught to play the harp by the renowned blind harpist Art O’Neill. With some other notable figures McDonnell organised the Belfast Harp Festival.

“…a project was launched in Belfast for ‘An Assembly of Harpers’ to be held in the town, the organisers being Dr James McDonnell (who lived in Donegal Place), Robert Bradshaw and Henry Joy; and as a result of the herculean labours of these gentlemen, on July 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th of the year 1792 the Belfast Harp Festival took place in the Great Hall on the second floor of the Assembly Room, at the foot of North Street”

Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out 1946

In the audiences were Wolfe Tone, Mary Ann McCracken and Henry Joy McCracken and the Armagh musician Edward Bunting. In partnership with his brother, Alexander (a surgeon), James set up the Irish Harp Society in Cromac Street and in conjunction a school to promote the Irish language in Pottinger’s Entry.

Political Interests

McDonnell’s love of his Irish heritage and his entrenched social and moral conscience invariably led him into the circle of political radicals of the day. He was a friend of Wolfe Tone and the McCrackens. In 1792 he signed the Volunteer declaration supporting Catholic emancipation.

McDonnell “became a key figure in the evolution of the town’s medical, educational and philanthropic institutions as well as its cultural and political developments”

Peter Frogatt

James McDonnell’s Family

On 9th September 1791 James married Eliza Clarke, the daughter of a wealthy Belfast merchant. They had four children – Randal, Alexander, John and Katherine Anne. Unfortunately Eliza died in 1798. James subsequently married Penelope Montgomery of Larne.

James McDonnell died on 5th April 1845 at his home in Donegall Place. His funeral was attended by hundreds of mourners including the Lord Mayor of Belfast and numerous members of the medical profession. James is buried in his birthplace Cushendall, in the old churchyard at Layde. His headstone is a tall Celtic Cross.

Recognition for his Efforts

Peer Recognition

James McDonnell undoubtedly contributed greatly to the literary, musical and cultural development of the growing city of Belfast. However, it is his unceasing endeavours in the fields of medicine and education that are so noteworthy. This was recognised in 1829 when he was presented with a 10 piece silver service of plate (costing £700) by the ‘Nobility, Ladies and Gentlemen of Belfast and its vicinity’. It is inscribed:

“To James McDonnell MD who…has devoted his time and eminent talents to the work of humanity; whose gratuitous advice has always been at the service of the poor; and [to whom] this Town has been principally indebted for that invaluable Institution the Fever Hospital and Dispensary”

Inscription on behalf of the Nobility, Ladies and Gentlemen of Belfast
James McDonnell - Notice of Award of Inscribed Plates
James McDonnell – Notice of Award of Inscribed Plates

In Historical Records

“As a man of the loftiest benevolence, he shone conspicuously amongst his contemporaries. He spared neither his time, his pocket, nor his labour, in his devotion to the Charitable Institutions of the town….The Dispensary and the Fever Hospital were peculiarly the objects of his unceasing care. So long as health permitted was he to be seen, night and day, working in the Districts like a very slave, or toiling in the Wards for hours”

A G Malcolm, History of the General Hospital 1851

Blue Plaque

A Blue Plaque in honour of James McDonnell is situated in Queens Arcade, Belfast on the site of his Donegall Place residence.

James McDonnell Plaque on Queens Arcade
James McDonnell Plaque on Queens Arcade
James McDonnell Plaque
James McDonnell Plaque

More Information

The James McDonnell Archive is held by PRONI [D/8819]

Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, 2 Titanic Boulevard, Titanic Quarter, Belfast BT3 9HQ

Tel: 028 90534800

A G Malcolm - extract History of the General Hospital, 1851
A G Malcolm – extract History of the General Hospital, 1851
James McDonnell Memorial Inscription
James McDonnell Memorial Inscription
James McDonnell Memorial at the Church
James McDonnell Memorial at the Church
James McDonnell Celtic Cross in Layde Churchyard
James McDonnell Celtic Cross in Layde Churchyard

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