The Irish doctor who invented the syringe

 

Our best-kept secrets: If you ever had a local anaesthetic at the dentist or an injection from your GP, you are one of the many billions of people around the world who have benefited from the hypodermic needle, a simple yet powerful device that was invented by a Dublin doctor in 1844.

The man you should thank is Francis Rynd (1801-61), who was a surgeon at Dublin's Meath Hospital. The Meath, then located in Heytesbury Street and now incorporated into Tallaght Hospital, was internationally renowned as a great centre for medical training and research. Many innovations were pioneered there, but arguably the most important was Rynd's technique for injecting substances directly under a patient's skin.

Rynd was treating a woman who had suffered for years with a severe pain in her face from neuralgia. She tried drinking a solution of morphine to kill the pain and, when this failed, Rynd decided to try and place the morphine directly under her skin and near her facial nerves.

He designed the first hypodermic needle, and on June 3rd, 1844, he performed the world's first subcutaneous or hypodermic injection, essentially giving the woman a powerful local anaesthetic.

His improvised syringe was made from two medical implements: a small tube, or cannula, and a cutting device called a trocar. Using the trocar, Rynd punctured the skin on the woman's face, and then allowed the morphine to flow through the cannula and under her skin. Rynd recorded that afterwards the woman slept well for the first time in months.

The new technique was soon widely used to treat pain and was championed as "the greatest boon to medicine since the discovery of chloroform". Florence Nightingale benefited from it herself during an illness and declared: "Nothing did me any good, but a curious little new-fangled operation of putting opium under the skin, which relieved [the pain] for 24 hours."

In Rynd's design, the substance being injected simply flowed slowly out of the needle under gravity. But in 1853 the plunger syringe was invented, allowing doctors to inject solutions faster, and to give intravenous injections (directly into a vein against blood pressure). It also allowed the taking of blood samples, which could then be subjected to diagnostic tests for an ever-increasing range of disorders and diseases.

Rynd had been a wayward medical student, preferring to spend his time fox-hunting rather than walking the wards. He subsequently became an important figure on the Irish medical scene, but continued to enjoy the social life, and his presence was said to have been much in demand at "fashionable dinner parties". Francis Rynd, the man who gave us the hypodermic injection, died in Dublin in 1861.

Read more about pioneering Irish physicians and the Meath hospital in Davis Coakley's book, The Irish School of Medicine (1988). Mary Mulvihill's Ingenious Ireland is published by Town House, price €30.