A brief history of Dublin hospitals

An Irish medical student offers a historical tour of his training hospital, and others.Asking patients if they have any questions isn't the best way to be sure they understand.

On the 16th of June 1904, Leopold Bloom began his epic day in Ulysses, eating a breakfast of thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods' roes.” The location of this feast—a house at No. 7 Eccles Street in Dublin, Ireland—I know very well, as what now stands on this site is the Mater Misericordriae University Hospital, one of the primary teaching hospitals of University College Dublin Medical School, where I have been based as a medical student for the past two years.

The hospital is a prominent part of the landscape of Ulysses' Dublin. The opening line of the book recounts Buck Mulligan, a medical student of the Mater, “bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” The book reflects the characters and landscape of real-life Dublin: Buck Mulligan is based on a medical student friend of author James Joyce and the book accurately accords the Mater a central place in the life of the city.

Photo courtesy of Sean Naughton
Photo courtesy of Sean Naughton.

The Mater opened its doors on Sept. 24, 1861. It was founded by the Sisters of Mercy, an organization of Catholic women established in Dublin by Catherine McAuley in 1831. The Sisters of Mercy were prodigious in their building of hospitals and schools in the 19th century, establishing a number of U.S. hospitals around this time, beginning with Mercy Hospital of Chicago in 1852. The Mater opened with 100 beds at a cost of £27,000, and was a welcome relief to the city's poor. Just five years later, there was an outbreak of cholera in the city in which almost 1,200 Dubliners died, and four years later 865 people died in a smallpox epidemic.

At the time of the hospital's founding, there were already a number of medical centers of note in Dublin. Oliver St. John Gogarty, the real-life counterpart to Buck Mulligan, practiced as an otolaryngologist at the Meath Hospital, which had been in existence since 1753. The hospital gained renown for its association with two physicians: Robert Graves (1796-1853), who gave his name to Graves' disease, and his student William Stokes (1804-1878), remembered for Cheyne-Stokes respiration and Stokes-Adams disease. They were considered modern for delivering lectures in English rather than Latin and were acknowledged by William Osler as influential teachers.

Even more established than the Meath Hospital was Dr. Steevens' Hospital, founded in 1733, which counted among its ranks Abraham Colles (1773-1843), remembered today for his description of Colles' fracture. Colles' apprentice was another well-known doctor, William Wilde, father to Oscar Wilde. An early benefactor of the hospital was Esther Johnson, close friend of Jonathan Swift, who published an appendix of her sayings to early editions of Gulliver's Travels.

Swift himself made a contribution to the medical landscape of Dublin, bequeathing money to found a hospital for the mentally ill. St. Patrick's Hospital was opened in 1747 and was located beside Dr. Steevens' Hospital, due to the emerging concept of a link between physical and mental ill-health. Sir William Wilde, then oculist-in-ordinary to Queen Victoria, made his own addition in 1844, founding St. Mark's Ophthalmic Hospital for Diseases of the Eye and Ear.

Dublin may have had a number of hospitals, but the Mater filled additional roles. In the early 1900s, the outpatients' department was a place where Dubliners would come to avail themselves of medical aid, social amenities, heat and light. Over the din of conversations between neighbors could be heard the refrain of Oysters for sale! as Dublin's “Oyster Man” undertook his own rounds to the peckish public.

The Mater fulfilled another vital role as the teaching hospital of the Catholic University of Ireland, now University College Dublin. In 1861, Ireland was a part of the United Kingdom, and the native Catholic population suffered much discrimination, including exclusion from the professional and ruling classes. Prohibited from studying at many of the city's medical schools, aspiring Catholic doctors would now have a center that provided clinical training and career opportunities.

The Mater has continued to expand over the past 151 years, and today has over 600 beds and is the national center for cardiac surgery, heart and lung transplantation and spinal injuries, in addition to significant teaching and research activities.

Although Leopold Bloom's house is no longer standing, Eccles Street hasn't changed that much over the years. It's not difficult for me to picture the scene Joyce had in mind as I pass the rows of brightly colored doors, topped with elaborate porticos, every morning. I have had many days in the Mater which have felt as long as Bloom's day in Ulysses, but every time I pass Joyce's bronze likeness at the entrance, I am reminded of the central role that this hospital has played in the life of Dublin city.