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A wonderful history of the RCSI

By Prof Brendan Kelly - 07th Jan 2024


Title: Every Branch of the Healing Art: A History of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland

Author: Dr Ronan Kelly (PhD)

Publisher: Eastwood Books

Reviewer: Prof Brendan Kelly

An examination of history invariably shows that the path to the present, which can seem so fixed today, was usually far from smooth, certainly not inevitable, and often filled with anecdote and colour. Histories of medicine and medical establishments are a constant joy in this regard, often demonstrating not only aspects of the development of clinical care, but also social and political stories that illuminate broader themes.

RCSI, Dublin

This is most certainly the case with this new book by Dr Ronan Kelly (PhD), titled Every Branch of the Healing Art: A History of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. This wonderful history of the RCSI gives a comprehensive and vivid overview of the development of an establishment that was both witness to, and involved in, key episodes in Irish history. As well as pushing forward the art of medicine, the RCSI bore witness to the birth of a nation, two World Wars, and two pandemics. Its story is explored here in neatly paced prose and glorious colour, gathered into a handsome volume and published by Eastwood Books.

This history is an exciting one. Almost two and a half centuries ago, in 1784, a small band of Irish surgeons broke ranks with the Guild of Barber-Surgeons and formed the RCSI. The consequences of that fateful initiative were substantial. The RCSI is now a fixture of the medical landscape both in Ireland and internationally.

This history of the RCSI covers the period of the barber-surgeons before the RCSI, the foundation and expansion of the College, various innovations and developments in its expansion, the RCSI in times of adversity (1924 to 1961), and its renaissance between 1962 and 1984. The book’s account of the original establishment of the RCSI’s trademark façade and building is especially interesting. As The Lancet commented at the time, “solid and substantial… it stands, the pride of Irish surgery and the terror of many a candidate whose fate depends on its decrees.”

The book’s account of the RCSI’s more recent history looks at not only the College itself, but also the Covid-19 pandemic, and the RCSI’s inevitable involvement in the health system’s response to the outbreak. Kelly notes that “[t]he RCSI’s history of progressive IT investment now paid dividends on previously unimaginable levels, across all College and University activities”. Among other involvements, “entire new systems, headquartered in the RCSI, were set up to optimise the usage of ICU beds nationwide and to connect GPs with surgeon advisors so as to safely minimise hospital referrals.” Initiatives such as these underpinned Ireland’s day-to-day responses to the pandemic, often far from the news headlines, but richly meriting commemoration in a history such as this. If past pandemics are any guide, the collective memory for this one will be short, so it is essential that we keep a clear record of how the public health emergency was handled. This book helps with that task.

Ronan Kelly is well placed to write this history. He holds a BA and a PhD from Trinity College Dublin, an MFA from University College Dublin, and a DipLIS from Aberystwyth University, Wales. He is a former Fulbright Fellow whose first book, Bard of Erin: The Life of Thomas Moore (2008), was an Irish Times and Times Literary Supplement book of the year. Kelly works in the RCSI Library’s Heritage Collections and his deep knowledge of this subject is apparent throughout this beautifully written volume, which (to my great joy) even has a ribbon bookmark.

Its story is explored here in neatly paced prose and glorious colour, gathered into a handsome volume

Today, the RCSI describes itself as “an innovative, world-leading international health sciences university, and research institution offering education and training at undergraduate, postgraduate, and professional level”. It is certainly an organisation of remarkable substance, with a strong presence on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin city centre and a continued impact on medicine both in Ireland and abroad. Every Branch of the Healing Art explains, with vigour and insight, how this came to be the case, and paints a clear picture of the RCSI’s continued potential into the future.

Prof Brendan Kelly is Professor of Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin and author of ‘Resilience: Lessons from Sir William Wilde on Life after Covid’ (Eastwood Books).

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