William James MacNeven, Irish American physician and writer, is born on March 21, 1763, at Ballynahowna, near Aughrim, County Galway. One of the oldest obelisks in New York City is dedicated to him at St. Paul’s Chapel on Broadway while a second obelisk is dedicated to Thomas Emmet, a fellow United Irishman and Attorney General of New York. MacNeven’s monument features a lengthy inscription in Irish, one of the oldest existent dedications of this kind in the Americas.
The eldest of four sons, at the age of 12 MacNeven is sent by his uncle Baron MacNeven to receive his education abroad, for the penal laws render education impossible for Catholics in Ireland. This Baron MacNeven is William O’Kelly MacNeven, an Irish exile physician, who for his medical skill in her service has been created an Austrian noble by the Empress Maria Theresa. Young MacNeven makes his collegiate studies at Prague. His medical studies are made at Vienna where he is a pupil of Pestel and takes his degree in 1784. The same year he returns to Dublin to practise.
MacNeven becomes involved in the United Irishmen of the time, with such men as Lord Edward FitzGerald, Thomas Addis Emmet, and his brother Robert Emmet. He is arrested in March 1798, and confined in Kilmainham Gaol, and afterwards in Fort George, Scotland, until 1802, when he is liberated and exiled. In 1803, he is in Paris seeking an interview with Napoleon Bonaparte in order to obtain French troops for Ireland. Disappointed in his mission, MacNeven comes to America, landing at New York on July 4, 1805.
In 1807, MacNeven delivers a course of lectures on clinical medicine in the recently established College of Physicians and Surgeons. Here in 1808, he receives the appointment of professor of midwifery. In 1810, at the reorganization of the school, he becomes the professor of chemistry, and in 1816 is appointed in addition to the chair of materia medica. In 1826 with six of his colleagues, he resigns his professorship because of a misunderstanding with the New York Board of Regents, and accepts the chair of materia medica in Rutgers Medical College, a branch of the New Jersey institution of that name, established in New York as a rival to the College of Physicians and Surgeons. The school at once becomes popular because of its faculty, but after four years is closed by legislative enactment on account of interstate difficulties. The attempt to create a school independent of the regents results in a reorganization of the University of the State of New York.
MacNeven’s best known contribution to science is his “Exposition of the Atomic Theory” (New York, 1820), which is reprinted in the French Annales de Chimie. In 1821 he publishes with emendations an edition of Brande’s “Chemistry” (New York, 1829). Some of his purely literary works, his “Rambles through Switzerland” (Dublin, 1803), his “Pieces of Irish History” (New York, 1807), and his numerous political tracts attract wide attention. He is co-editor for many years of the “New York Medical and Philosophical Journal.”