Medicine in Early Ireland

The Curse of the Irish Hospitals' Sweepstake

The first use of anaesthetic was one that changed the trajectory of medicine in Ireland for times to come, influencing even modern society. Prior to this event, invasive treatment of all sizes, from nose fixtures to limb amputations, were performed with little to no anesthesia. However, it would definitely not numb the areas; patients would report screaming throughout their procedure where they could “feel the metal dig into [their] breasts and cut through arteries, veins, and flesh”. The unbearable pain of being cut open could result in nerve damage and high levels of stress and trauma.

It wasn’t until Mary Kane of County Meath arrived with a prick by a hawthorn tree that there was potential for a better surgery and treatment. Dr. John MacDonnell acknowledged the need for amputation to occur before nerve damage affected the rest of her body, though amputations were the most difficult due to the sawing through bones, flesh, arteries, and veins. Postponing her surgery by a day, he practiced a form of anesthesia he found, testing the injections. When realizing that he would be knocked out with no sense of awareness or feeling, he performed the amputation on the woman using the same anesthesia, and the surgery was a success. In just a week, Mary Kane recovered from the surgery, and this marked the beginning of medicine advancement in the country (Kilfeather 126-127).

Medicine has definitely come a long way in Ireland along with the whole world. Dr. MacDonnell predicted the influence and importance of anesthesia, claiming its position would be alongside vaccines and other high-scale medications. The prediction turned out to be true, nonetheless; anesthesiology ranks as one of the highest, most complex, and important medical specialties in the world. We owe it to doctors such as Dr. MacDonnell, who took a leap of faith while practicing medicine in early Ireland, to get to where we are today.

1 Comment

  1. This is such an interesting passage to focus on! I liked Kilfeather’s note that Ireland still had “remarkable achievements” amidst the suffering of the Famine, and this just goes to prove that. I also wonder if it would be possible to compare Dr. John MacDonnell to the doctors of “Dracula”–perhaps more easily to Van Helsing, as Seward is largely concerned with mental health. As you note, the importance of medicine rose in Ireland after MacDonnell’s advancements. Maybe this influenced Stoker to make two of his protagonists medical experts.

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