He is the forgotten Irish scientist, who in the 1800s conducted his research in a hayloft over his stables and whose findings were rubbished in his lifetime. Tomorrow, though, more than over 100 years after his death, Taoiseach Enda Kenny will officially open a new €17million science building at IT Sligo, named in honour of Charles Alexander MacMunn.
Born in Easkey, Co Sligo, MacMunn became so disillusioned with the reaction to his ground-breaking discoveries, that he abandoned his research and went off to fight in the Boer War, dying of malaria some years later.
David MacMunn, a great great-great-grandnephew of the brilliant physician and scientist, will be one of over a dozen members of the extended MacMunn family at tomorrow’s ceremony. “He was not recognised in his own lifetime so it is nice that he is being honoured in his home county,” said the Portlaoise-based solicitor, who was also born in west Sligo .
His famous ancestor spent most of his working life as a doctor in Wolverhampton where, despite having his own practice and a hospital post, he found time for scientific research .
The Trinity College Dublin graduate discovered a classification of respiratory pigments – now known as the cytochrome system – throughout plant and animal tissues. His conclusion that the absorption of oxygen and the formation of carbon dioxide took place in the tissues of the body, rather than the blood, overturned what was until then a common belief in the medical profession.
"It was revolutionary," said Dr Jeremy Bird head of the school of science at IT Sligo. "Remember, this was 1875 and DNA was not discovered until 1953."
MacMunn, the son of a Co Sligo doctor , was so busy in medicine that he had little time to indulge his passion for research. But his wife recalled that this long ago multi-tasker got into the habit of jotting down sudden ideas on to his shirt cuffs while out on his rounds.
“They also say that he had an eyeglass built into his door so that if he did not like the look of a patient heading up the garden path, he might not abandon his research for them,” David MacMunn pointed out. “He was obviously quite a character.”
An eminent German biochemist, Felix Hoppe-Seyler, raised doubts about MacMunn’s research and, disenchanted, he went off to serve in the Boer War.
While his scientific brilliance was not initially recognised, he received the queen’s campaign medal for his service in South Africa , as well as the long service medal, and he was also presented with the coronation medal of Edward VII.
In 1925, 14 years after MacMunn's death from the malaria he contracted during the Boer War, Cyctrochromes were rediscovered by a Polish scientist David Keillin at the University of Cambridge. Fifty years after his discovery , the Sligo man was vindicated.
“It’s worth noting that the guy who vindicated him was working in Cambridge but MacMunn made the original discovery, not in Oxford or Cambridge, but in a loft,” Dr Bird said.
Conditions in the new MacMunn building at the Sligo college, with its 80-station foundation laboratory, seven teaching laboratories and four research labs, should be more conducive to research than a hay loft. “I think he would approve,” Dr Bird said.
Meanwhile, IT Sligo has confirmed the appointment of Prof Vincent Cunnane as its new president. A native of Ballybofey, Co Donegal, Prof Cunnane is a former chief executive of Shannon Development and spent most of his academic career at the University of Limerick where he served as vice president research. He will take up the post at the end of September, taking over from Prof Terri Scott who has been president since 2008.