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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Ophthalmologist Arthur Jacob

Arthur Jacob, Irish ophthalmologist, is born on June 13, 1790, at Knockfin, near Maryborough, Queens County (now Portlaoise, County Laois). He is known for founding several hospitals, a medical school, and a medical journal. He contributes to science and academia through his 41-year term as Professor of Anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) and as the first Irish ocular pathologist. He is elected President of RCSI in 1837 and 1864.

Jacob is the second son of John Jacob, M.D. (1754–1827), surgeon to the Queen’s County infirmary, Maryborough, by his wife Grace (1765–1835), only child of Jerome Alley of Donoughmore. He studies medicine with his father and at Dr. Steevens’s Hospital, Kilmainham, Dublin, under Abraham Colles. Having graduated M.D. at the University of Edinburgh in 1814, he sets out on a walking tour through the United Kingdom, crossing the English Channel at Dover, and continuing his walk from Calais to Paris.

Jacob studies at Paris until Napoleon‘s return from Elba. He subsequently pursues his studies in London under Sir Benjamin Collins Brodie, Sir Astley Cooper, and Sir W. Lawrence. In 1819 he returns to Dublin, and becomes demonstrator of anatomy under Dr. James Macartney at Trinity College Dublin. Here his anatomical researches gain for him a reputation, and he collects a museum, which Macartney afterwards sells to the University of Cambridge.

On leaving Macartney, Jacob joins with Robert James Graves and others in founding the Park Street School of Medicine. In 1826 he is elected Professor of Anatomy and Physiology at Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI), and holds the chair until 1869. He is elected President of RCSI in 1837 and 1864. He founds an Ophthalmic Hospital in Pitt (now Balfe) Street in 1829 and in 1832, in conjunction with Charles Benson and others, he founds the Baggot Street Hospital, Baggot Street, and later practices there after the opening of a dedicated eye ward. His younger rival, Sir William Wilde, subsequently founds the competing St. Mark’s Ophthalmic Hospital in Lincoln Place (beside Trinity College) in 1844.

In 1839, with Dr. Henry Maunsell, Jacob starts the Dublin Medical Press, a weekly journal of medical science, and edits forty-two volumes from 1839 to 1859, in order “to diffuse useful knowledge… to instil honourable principles, and foster kind feelings in the breast of the student” among other desirable aims. He also contributes to the Dublin Journal of Medical Science. He takes an active part in founding the Royal Medical Benevolent Fund Society of Ireland and the Irish Medical Association.

At the age of seventy-five Jacob retires from the active pursuit of his profession. His fame rests on his anatomical and ophthalmological discoveries.

In December 1860 a medal bearing Jacob’s likeness is struck and presented to him, and his portrait, bust, and library are later placed in the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. He dies at Newbarnes, Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, England, on September 21, 1874. He is buried at Mount Jerome Cemetery, Dublin.

In 1819 Jacob announces the discovery, which he had made in 1816, of a previously unknown membrane of the eye, in a paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. The membrane has been known since as membrana Jacobi and forms the retina. Apart from his discovery of the membrana Jacobi, he describes Jacob’s ulcer, and revives cataract surgery through the cornea with a curved needle, Jacob’s needle. To the Cyclopædia of Anatomy he contributes an article on the eye, and to the Cyclopædia of Practical Medicine treatises on Ophthalmia and Amaurosis.

In 1824 Jacob marries Sarah, daughter of Coote Carroll, of Ballymote, County Sligo. The marriage produces five sons. She dies on January 6, 1839.

(Pictured: Photograph of a marble bust of Arthur Jacob on the main staircase of the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital, Dublin, Ireland)


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Birth of Historian George Benn

george-bennGeorge Benn, Irish historian of Belfast, is born in Tanderagee, County Armagh on January 1, 1801.

Benn’s grandfather, Jonn Benn, came from Cumberland about 1760 as engineer of the Newry Canal. His father, also John Benn (1767-1853), was proprietor of a brewery in Belfast. He is educated at the Belfast Academy, under Rev. Dr. Bruce and afterwards under Sheridan Knowles, then a teacher of English at Belfast. He enters the collegiate classes of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution in 1816, being one of the original alumni, and takes gold medals in logic (1817) and moral philosophy (1818).

In 1819 the faculty prize is offered for the “best account of a parish.” Benn is the successful essayist, with the parish of Belfast as his theme. He also gains in 1821 the faculty prize (The Crusades), and Dr. Tennant’s gold medal (Sketch of Irish Authors in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries). His essay of 1819 attracts the attention of James M’Knight, LL.D., then editor of the Belfast News-Letter who offers to print and publish it. It is issued anonymously in an enlarged form in 1823, with three maps and sixteen engravings by J. Thomson. For so young a writer it is a work of uncommon judgment and research, exceedingly well written, with an eye for scenery and a taste for economics as well as for antiquities. It is not superseded by Benn’s later labours.

Benn, with his brother Edward (1798- 1874), engages in distilling near Downpatrick. Subsequently the brothers spend the prime of their days on an estate they purchase at Glenravel, near Ballymena. Here, in an unimproved district, they plant the hillsides, plough the moors, build good houses, and collect a valuable library. They endeavour to create a new industry by an experiment in the manufacture of potato spirit, but excise regulations in place at the time frustrate their object. The cost of the experiment, and the losses from potato disease, induce the brothers to undertake a business in Liverpool for some years. Returning to Glenravel, a casual circumstance leads to a rich discovery of iron ore in the Glenravel hills. The first specimen is smelted in 1851 under Edward Benn’s direction. In 1866 an agreement is made with James Fisher, of Barrow-in-Furness, to work the mineral beds. Hence comes a new and valuable addition to the commercial products of Ulster, which has since attained important proportions.

Meanwhile, Edward Benn is contributing antiquarian articles to various journals and forming a fine archaeological collection, now in the Ulster Museum. It his proposed to George to resume and complete the history of Belfast. He modestly indicates, as more fit for the task, William Pinkerton, who collects some materials, but dies in 1871 without having begun the history. Pinkerton’s papers are submitted to Benn for publication, but he finds employment of them impracticable, and states in his preface to his history, “It is all my own work from beginning to end.”

Benn returns to Belfast after his brother’s death in 1874, publishing A History of the Town of Belfast in 1877. A second volume appears in 1880. This supplementary volume, though the proof-sheets are “corrected by a kind friend,” the late John Carlisle, head of the English department in the Royal Academical Institution, bears evidence of the author’s affecting statement: “Before I had proceeded very far, my sight entirely failed.” Benn dies on January 8, 1882.

Edward and George Benn are members of the nonsubscribing presbyterian body, but wide in their sympathies and broad in their charities beyond the limits of their sect. Edward is the founder, and George the benefactor, of three hospitals in Belfast and their gifts to educational institutions are munificent.