Medical Matters: A Trinity of memories

Body snatching and other tales from TCD medical school’s history in Coakley’s book


What is it about attachment to one’s alma mater? Maybe the clue is in the term’s English translation, “nourishing mother”.

Being an alumnus of an educational establishment imbues most graduates with a deeply felt but often indefinable sense of fondness when returning to their old university.

I have written before of my student days in Trinity College Dublin’s medical school. The publication this month of Medicine in Trinity College Dublin – an Illustrated History by Davis Coakley is a welcome opportunity to revisit and revel in past memories.

In the interests of full disclosure, I worked as a houseman in St James’s Hospital for the author, the now retired professor of medical gerontology at TCD, in the 1980s.

An established writer, most notably of Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Irish, Coakley is well placed to write the definitive history of one of the oldest medical schools in Europe.

Queen Elizabeth I granted TCD its foundation charter in 1592 but, what with war and political instability, it was some years before the school of physics became established.

Coakley’s scholarship and the detail of the medical school’s early history is impressive, as are the many illustrations, some of which are published for the first time.

A part of the book that really caught my eye was the early teaching of anatomy at the university. Anatomy was considered the most important subject on the 18th-century medical curriculum. However, acquiring human cadavers to dissect and study was incredibly difficult, leading to the growth of “body snatching”.

One of the most dynamic professors in the long history of the medical school, James Macartney, was appointed in 1813. Coakley has unearthed diaries that make it clear the professor of anatomy and surgery was actively involved in grave robbing.

“The graveyard for paupers, the Dublin Hospital Fields Burying Ground, or, as it was widely known, ‘Bully’s Acre’, which adjoined the grounds of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, was the one most frequently raided,” Coakley writes. “Burial there was free, the graveyard was unguarded and there were regular interments because of the high mortality rate among the poor.”

Body snatching was a dangerous enterprise, with students and professors armed with “stout sticks”. If they were spotted it was not uncommon for a mob of aggrieved relatives and friends of the deceased to gather and attack the anatomists.

Personal memories
The many photographs and illustrations trigger personal memories.

Another old “boss”, Prof John Prichard, who died prematurely in 1996, is looking at me, from a photograph in the book, as I write. He was an outstanding clinical teacher who came to Trinity and St James’s from Oxford University.

He taught those of my generation our first clinical skills, and was someone who “encouraged students to think from basic principles”. Asked by him on one teaching ward round to discuss possible cures for motion sickness, the best I could come up with was the distinctly unscientific offering of the rubber strips attached to the underside of cars at the time. Not one of my finer moments.

Coakley rightly hails the contribution of the late James McCormick, who was appointed dean of the faculty in 1974.

As professor of community health at Trinity, McCormick encouraged us to think critically and to question everything. “Science without caring is inhuman; care without science is dangerous,” he said.

As pre-medical students, McCormick taught us a course titled “Man and his Environment”. We visited patients in their own homes. I recall “my” patient in a bedsit in the North Circular Road describing how a lack of heat and money and unwanted solitude had a detrimental effect on her health.

Great memories from a great book.

Medicine in Trinity College Dublin by Davis Coakley is published by TCD and is available from the Trinity Library bookshop or online at

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