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Dr James McDonnell

Physician 1763-1845
Dr James McDonnell

James McDonnell was born on 14 April 1963 in Cushendall, Co Antrim.  In 1780 he attended Edinburgh University where he graduated as MD. Following his graduation he returned to Belfast, with a population of around 17,000 and only 10 physicians. 


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.  A house was taken in West Street (off Smithfield), and the infant charity started forth on its way. Its aim was to supply free medicine and free medical attendance to the indigent poor, and also to visit them in their homes when occasion required. The days of attendance were Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 10 a.m., and the Dispensary was open till 3 p.m. The charity was popular with the class for whom it was established, and in a little over four years 2,406 patients had received medical or surgical advice, and medicine valued at £120 per annum, which is at the rate of 4s. 4d. per person, or £21. 13s. 4d. per hundred. Of these, 1,740 were cured, 336 relieved, 50 reported as incurable, and 280 died or made no report.


In 1797, Dr McDonnell was instrumental in founding a public hospital for fever cases, in particular Typhoid and a house was rented in Berry Street, which accomodated 6 beds.  This new institution, The Belfast Fever Hospital and Dispensary, was in this way established, and the future expansion and foundations of the Medical School can be traced to this small hospital of 6 beds.


In 1810 the decision to erect a new hospital building was agreed, ground was leased in  Frederick Street and a Building Fund was commenced. In the following year the Building Fund was increased by means of Charity Sermons, and the labours of collectors, and on 5th June, 1815, the first stone of the new building was laid by the Marquess of Donegall. The wards were opened on 1 August 1817.  In December 1821, the hospital allowed the first registered medical student to attend and from that date up to 1850 over 400 medical students attended at the hospital.


In 1827 it was decided that lectures would be a great advantage to the pupils and to the hospital, and on 3rd June the senior physician, Dr. James McDonnell, gave the first clinical lecture on "Systematic Medicine." The Belfast School of Medicine had started on its way. Its author had now reached the summit of his medical career: he had come to Belfast many years previously, he had founded a Dispensary, he had founded a Hospital, and in the lecture-theatre he had become a teacher of his profession. The full fruits of his plans were not yet matured, but some years later (1836), before his death, the Medical School was completed by the establishment of a medical department in the Academical Institution. The Medical School of Belfast was founded in the old General Hospital, improved by the formation of the medical department of the Academical, and completed in 1848 by the establishment of the Medical Faculty in the Queen's College.


Following retirement he was appointed to the consulting staff of the hospital in 1828. In the same year, on l8th April, he was presented with a service of plate, valued at £700, inscribed as follows: "To James McDonnell, Esq., M.D., who during a period of nearly forty years 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 whose exertions this town has been principally indebted for that invaluable institution, the Fever Hospital and Dispensary, this service of plate has been presented by the nobility, Ladies and Gentlemen of Belfast and its vicinity, as a tribute of their respect and esteem. A.D. 1828.


On his death on 5th April, 1845, he was 82 years of age and the oldest member of his profession in the city.