Old Mater Infirmorum Hospital

Mater Infirmorum Hospital - founded 1883


This is a précis of a paper by Rory S Casement published in the Ulster Medical Journal 1969 vol 38 p62. The full text is available in pdf via the download page.

The story of the Mater takes us straightaway to the arrival in Belfast of the Order of the Sisters of Mercy, who established this Hospital. They came originally to start a school and had been long established in St. Paul's Convent, Crumlin Road, before the notion of a hospital was conceived. When the Catholic Bishop of the time—Dr. Dorrian—entertained the idea he turned naturally to this Order; for since they went with Florence Nightingale to the battlefields of the Crimea, their fame as a nursing order was worldwide.

The first reference to the Mater comes in a small devotional pamphlet published for the nuns in 1876. They had just erected a small grotto, or shrine, in the convent grounds—to the Mother of God, to implore her help in establishing a hospital for the poor of the city and the province. "All offerings will be funded, until a sufficient sum can be raised to secure an edifice worthy of the people of Belfast, and suitable for the reception of its sick and suffering inhabitants; where all their wants, spiritual and temporal, will be carefully attended to, and where the sufferers will enjoy the fullest rights of conscience". It was a noble ideal, and its practice has continued down the years. Some money was collected, and in 1883 Dr. Dorrian purchased for £2,300 the building known as Bedeque House, and spent a considerable sum in conversion. It was opened as the "Mater Infirmorum" or Mother of the Sick. The cottage next door was made into a dispensary, with small wards upstairs.

From Dublin, where the Order had another Branch, the Sisters imported an experienced nurse to come and organise the new venture. She was Sister Mary Magdalene from the Mater Misericordiae Hospital. She found herself in charge of a much smaller institution—some 34 beds; small, but in the context of the times, ambitious enough. And so, modestly, but full of hope and sustained by charity, the Mater Hospital began.

For its size it had quite an impressive Medical Staff. The Consultant Physician was Alexander Harkin, M.D., F.R.C.S. James Fegan, Esq., F.R.C.S.I., was its Surgeon. On the Visiting Staff were Alexander Dempsey, M.D., F.R.C.S.I.; Peter O'Connell, M.D.; J. McStay, L.D.S., R.C.S.Eng. The Resident Surgeon was one F. C. Dwyer, B.A., M.D., B.Ch.

The Hospital was scarcely in business before all concerned with it realised that its accommodation was quite inadequate. The first quarterly report says: "The public are aware that the amount of bed accommodation is very limited; yet during the last 3 months 50 patients have received medical care in the wards; of these, 3 were moribund on admission and died. The remainder were cured or much relieved.". In the same period 675 patients attended the dispensary. The Surgeon Dentist attended once a week, which was quite an innovation for the times.

In the first annual report of 1884, the cry for more beds became louder; more so again the following year. This year saw the death of Dr. Dorrian. Before his death he gave instructions for the erection of a wing for 50-100 patients and plans were drawn up and approved by him. When he felt that his health was failing, he handed over the hospital to trustees.

Dr. Dorrian appears to have been quite a remarkable man. During his entire Episcopate he had consistently aimed at establishing a University College in Belfast, having all the facilities of higher education, including a medical school—of which the hospital would form an integral and essential part. It is easy now to say that such a project was grandiose and even unwise; that it would have further divided a community which was even then split, and which still struggles uneasily and slowly towards unity and a common purpose; but it must be remembered that, at that time, Catholics were forbidden by their Church to attend the Queen's College.

So the cry for more beds is linked to the notion of medical teaching. It was, of course, no mere coincidence that the General Hospital in Frederick Street was also contemplating expansion. Belfast at the close of the century was very poorly provided with hospital accommodation. The population explosion between 1841 and 1891, was quite remarkable. From 75,308 to 255,922 it almost quadrupled. Burdetts Hospital Annual of 1883 shows that as regards hospital facilities we stood at the bottom of the list among the major cities of the British Isles.

To further the project of the new Mater Hospital, a public meeting was held on September 25th, 1895, in St. Mary's Hall. The Bishop—now Dr. McAllister—announced that Mountview Terrace—seven terrace houses adjoining the old hospital—had been purchased for £2,600 and that plans were being drawn up for a new hospital of about 150 beds. Out of 14 designs submitted to Mr. Drew, President of the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland, the winning design had been submitted by Mr. William J. Fennell.

This inaugural meeting produced a good response, but the project lagged for a number of years. The new Bishop was then in poor health, and seems to have had a strong streak of caution. He was unwilling to go ahead with plans until more money was to hand. It was left to his successor, Dr. Henry, to expedite matters. By this time, as seems usual, the original £20,000 required had expanded to £50,000.

Accounts of collections make dreary enough reading, but there are one or two items of interest. One such is the penny collection. Each parish had its band of ladies known as Zealatorices, presumably zealous women—who called in every home once a week and asked for a penny—no more. They brought in £1,000 a year. The second item was on a grander scale and was known as the Railway Set-off Scheme. The three railways were not at all helpful. Two of them, in fact, refused to subscribe a penny and only the County Down Railway ultimately gave a subscription. The fund raising committee, therefore, organised a scheme to cover every town served by a railway station. Each ran its concert, whist drive, or what have you, and the project was, it appears, a great success. Finally, there was the great bazaar—five days of concerts, exhibitions and sales of work in the Ulster Hall, which netted £10,000.

Part of the hospital appears to have been opened as early as 1899, when the Secretaries of the Royal University of Ireland notified the Medical Staff that the Mater Hospital had been added to the "list of institutions from which the University received certificates for degrees in Medicine". Again—and it indicates both the scarcity of beds and the urgency of the situation—in August of that year the Bishop asked the Medical Staff to open the wards of the East Pavilion for the reception of patients attacked by the typhoid epidemic. This was the notorious epidemic which ran into 27,000 cases in Belfast.

The building was now complete, the formal opening was on April 22nd, 1900, and the ceremony was performed by the Lord Mayor, Sir Robert McConnell.

The recognition of the Mater, as a teaching hospital by Queen's University, dates from the implementation of the Irish Universities Act of 1908. The adjustments required in the existing Queen's University by this Act were entrusted to a body known as the Belfast Commissioners. Representatives of the Mater Staff approached this body, to lay down before them their case for teaching.

"We hope," they said, "that the Commission will devise a plan whereby this valuable clinical hospital will be utilised and become a source of strength to the University". Judge Shaw, the Chairman of the Commissioners, welcomed the deputation and stated that he sympathised with its objects, as widening the bases of support for the new University. And so, on the recommendation of the Senate, the Mater Hospital was included among the institutions recognised for teaching purposes. Teaching began, when on 9th October, 1908, the new Bishop, Dr. Tohill, agreed without any demur to the opening of a Clinical School. It was a source of deep satisfaction to the staff who threw themselves into the job of teaching with energy and enthusiasm, and with very considerable success. I should like to quote you an extract from a letter to the Commissioners of June 13th, 1910, from J. B. Moore, then Secretary of the Staff:

"The hospital has now had a clinical class for two winter and two summer sessions, and the efficiency of the teaching given in its wards is strikingly demonstrated by the attached list of prizes for fourth year students of the University at the sessional examinations at the end of the winter session 1909-10.

"The class at the Mater has been small, yet the Commissioners will observe that out of nine prize-winners seven were Mater students and that in Medicine and Surgery, all the four prizes were carried off by Mater Hospital students".

Three men, prominent, in those early days of the Mater, deserve special mention. Time does not permit me to talk of too many. First in seniority is Sir Alexander Dempsey. He began practice in Donegall Street in 1854 and was on the Staff from the beginning of the Hospital. He and Drs. William McKeown and John Moore established the Northern Ireland Branch of the British Medical Association and he subsequently became its President. He was also a President of this Society. In 1880 he was appointed a magistrate, acted for some time on the Joint Board of the Belfast and County Asylums, and was on the Visiting Committee of the Belfast Prison. He was active in the settlement of the University question, was a member of the National University Senate and a member of the Governing Body of University College, Dublin. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, London, and of the British Gynaecological Society, and a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Medicine of Ireland. Indeed, a man of distinction. He was knighted in 1904 by His Majesty King Edward VIII, and his firm signature sprawls across the Minute Book of the Medical Staff Committee for the next 15 or 16 years.

James Bernard Moore graduated from the Queen's College, Cork, with honours in 1890, after a brilliant undergraduate career that bristled with prizes and exhibitions. From Cork he went to St. Mungo's, Glasgow. He started in practice in Belfast on the Mountpottinger Road in 1894 and joined the Assistant Staff of the Mater in 1896, becoming a member of the Senior Staff in 1900. Surgery became his dominant interest and he became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, Ireland, in 1909. His subsequent career spans the two World Wars, and I recall him vividly when I first went to the Mater as a student. A good teacher, terse and pungent in his descriptions; not a man to suffer fools gladly. He was a reticent man and not given to talking much about himself.

John O'Doherty, who spent some 30 years on the Surgical Staff, was probably the last of the truly general surgeons. He was prepared and willing to remove the thyroid, or any expendable part from that to the uterus, and was equally at home with the bougie or the curette. Small, rotund, with as many waistcoats as an onion, he peered out on the world from behind enormous glasses and had an enormous interest in everyone and everything. He was equally informal with dustman or duchess. There is indeed a delightful story of his conversation with a distinguished lady during a royal tour of the hospital. They disappeared down a corridor on their own, John linking her familiarly by the elbow, and talking away happily, ten to the dozen. A fascinated houseman, treading as close as he dare on the heels of the great, heard the familiar opening: "There was a fellow once . . ." and the story went on to describe a treatment which Mr. O'Doherty held in great contempt—the enclosure of a limb in plaster for long periods for compound fractures and the like. "And then," said he, "after a year they took it off". "And was his leg better?" asked her Ladyship, trapped in fascinated horror by his eye. "Not at all, dear; it fell off."

The period which stretches through the 20's and the 30's was a difficult and unhappy time, not only for the Mater but for the whole city; a time of bitterness and bloodshed that kept all our hospitals busy, but strained friendships and soured relationships. In the mid-thirties there came again a time of growth and expansion that saw the building of a new nurses' home and a new extern department. The latter was built on ground belonging to the jail and an Act of Parliament was needed for its transfer. In the end it realised only half its projected size because of the unfortunate proximity of the prison.

In 1945 the Maternity Unit was opened. It is interesting to find in old records that a Maternity Wing was actually in operation in 1912—St. Mary's Maternity Hospital, in Lonsdale Terrace. However, it fades out during World War I when it appears to have been used for an overflow of war casualties and it was never reopened. The present building comprised at first two terrace houses—soon to be three—adapted to the purpose at a cost of about £20,000.

The most recent chapter in our history, since 1948, is familiar to us all, and I would only mention briefly the fascinating growth of the Young Philantrophists Association, which has virtually maintained this hospital since 1948. It was originally a small society of young men who raised money for the Mater in the usual way of concerts, dances and other social functions—once a common enough feature of all voluntary hospitals. In the early 1950's they mushroomed into the Y.P. Pools—a large and thriving organisation which has provided the major slice of our income ever since. They are something of a "silent service"; they have constantly sought publicity for the hospital—never for themselves.

So much for our story. I might perhaps finish with a few extracts from the old Staff Minute Book, which even through the rusty ink and the illegible doctors' writing gives us some idea of the flavour of the place, and the people who ran it.

There is no doubt that in those far-off happy days a Resident Medical Officer was considered fortunate to be alive and to tend to his betters. In 1901 £30 per annum was thought to be a very reasonable emolument. In 1912 they clearly repented of such generosity and the stipend dropped to £20. They were sacked, too, in a casual fashion that might well be the envy of any modern industrialist—usually for such serious offences as appearing in court and collecting fees intended for their seniors or persistently appearing late on the morning round. One such death sentence has, I think, a truly classic ring: "That Dr. X, having left the hospital without the permission of the Medical Staff, a vacancy be declared in that office."

By and large, of course, those things which are—to the lay mind—dramatic, are taken for granted by doctors. The really important things are tucked quietly away in case histories; the triumphs and failures are itemised in sober and unsensational terms. One recalls, for example—and very vividly—one of the nights when the city was heavily bombed; when a land mine exploded no more than 100 yards away from the hospital; when the Nurses' Home was in flames and when, at one point, bodies were stacked high against the wall of the jail which runs towards the mortuary, because there was nowhere else to put them. The Staff recorded it in three lines of dry and unemotional prose.

One closes the book with mixed feelings—some regret that so little is set down; that only the odd flash of a personality illumines the faded ink; some sense also of an achievement and of a continuity of a tradition; some feeling of encouragement to retain and pass on what one has received—and the wry reflection also that one has trespassed too long on your patience.