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Biographical entry MacCormac, Sir William (1836 - 1901)

Knight Bachelor, 1881; Baronet, 1897; K.C.V.O., 1898; K.C.B., 1901; M.R.C.S., Feb. 27th, 1857; F.R.C.S. (ad eundem), Jan. 12th, 1871; F.R.C.S.I., April 30th, 1864.

  • Image of MacCormac, Sir William
17 January 1836
Belfast, Northern Ireland
4 December 1901
Bath, Somerset, UK
General surgeon


Born at Belfast on Jan. 17th, 1836, the elder son of Henry MacCormac, a physician at Belfast, and Mary Newsham his wife. The younger son, John, became a director of the Northern Linen Company. His father gained notoriety in the North of Ireland as a strenuous advocate of the fresh-air treatment of phthisis. William was educated at the Belfast Royal Academical Institution and afterwards studied at Dublin and Paris. He entered Queen's College, Belfast, in October, 1851, as a student of engineering, and gained scholarships in engineering during his first and second years. He then turned aside to the arts course, graduated B.A. at the Queen's University in 1855, and proceeded M.A. in 1858. He won the senior scholarship in natural philosophy in 1856 and was admitted M.D. in the following year. The honorary degree of M.Ch. was conferred upon him in 1879, and the D.Sc. in 1882 with the Gold Medal of the University. The honorary degrees of M.D. and M.Ch. were also bestowed upon him by the University of Dublin in June, 1900. After graduation MacCormac studied surgery in Berlin, where he made lasting friendships with Langenbeck, Billroth, and von Esmarch. He practised in Belfast from 1864-1870, becoming successively Surgeon, Lecturer on Clinical Surgery, and Consulting Surgeon to the Belfast General Hospital.

MacCormac volunteered for service on the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, undertook hospital duties at Metz, was treated as a spy and was returned to Paris. Here he joined the Anglo-American Association for the care of the wounded, and with others arrived at Sedan on the night of Aug. 30th, 1870, bivouacking in the waiting-room at the station. MacCormac wandered up and down the platform until 2 a.m., when an engine with a single cattle-truck stopped and Napoleon III stepped out with two attendants. MacCormac followed the party and was the sole spectator of the Emperor's hardly gained admission to the town, which he left soon afterwards as a prisoner. The Battle of Sedan began at 4 a.m. on Sept. 1st, and during the first day more than a thousand soldiers were brought for treatment to the Caserne d'Asfeld, a deserted infantry barracks on the ramparts which MacCormac and his companions had hastily converted into a hospital of 384 beds. Some attempts were made to follow out the new Listerian methods, but for the most part the old rates of mortality prevailed.

Returning to London at the end of the war, he settled at 13 Harley Street, where he died more than thirty years afterwards. MacCormac was admitted in 1871 to the rare distinction of an ad eundem Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, and in February of the same year was elected, after a sharp contest, Assistant Surgeon to St. Thomas's Hospital, which had just moved to the new buildings on the Albert Embankment. He became full Surgeon in 1873 on the resignation of Frederic le Gros Clerk (q.v.) and lectured on surgery for twenty years. He was elected Consulting Surgeon to the hospital and Emeritus Lecturer on Clinical Surgery after resigning his active posts in 1893.

In 1876 MacCormac was present at the Battle of Alexinatz as chief surgeon of the National Aid Society for the Sick and Wounded in the Turco-Servian Campaign. He contributed largely to the success of the brilliant Seventh International Congress of Medicine which was held in London in 1881, when he was General Secretary and Editor of the Transactions. For his services in this capacity he received the honour of knighthood on Dec. 7th, 1881. He was President of the Medical Society of London in 1880, and of the Metropolitan Branch of the British Medical Association in 1890. He was Surgeon to the French, Italian, Queen Charlotte's, and the British Lying-in Hospitals, and was an Examiner in Surgery at the University of London and for Her Majesty's Naval, Military, and Indian Medical Services. He was created a baronet in 1897, was appointed Surgeon-in-Ordinary to the Prince of Wales, afterwards King Edward VII, and was decorated K.C.V.O. on Sept. 27th, 1898, in recognition of services rendered to the Prince when he injured his knee.

At the Royal College of Surgeons MacCormac was elected a Member of the Council in 1883, and of the Court of Examiners in 1887. He served as President during the years 1896, 1897, 1898, 1899, and 1900, being specially re-elected on the last occasion that he might occupy the Chair at the centenary of the College. He delivered the Bradshaw Lecture in 1893, and was Hunterian Orator in 1899.

War claimed him again in 1899-1900, when he was appointed Consulting Surgeon to the South African Field Force, and in this capacity visited military and civil hospitals in Cape Colony and Natal, going to the Front on four occasions. For these services he was created K.C.B. in 1901, and was gazetted Hon. Serjeant Surgeon to King Edward VII.

He abducted and married in 1861 Katherine Maria, daughter and heiress of John Charters, of Belfast. She survived him, but there were no children of the marriage. He died at Bath on Dec. 4th, 1901, and was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery.

MacCormac was a strikingly handsome man, standing six feet two inches in height and being proportionally well built. He was soft-voiced, singularly courteous in manner, and apparently - but only apparently - inattentive to what was being said to him. His industry, mastery of detail, rapidity of work, and Irish bonhomie made him a first-rate organizer. He was as widely known on the Continent of Europe as he was in England and Ireland, and he did much to break down the insularity which militated so long against the progress of British surgery, for he learned and taught what was done at home and abroad.

MacCormac was the best decorated practising surgeon of his generation. He was, in addition to the honours already mentioned, an Hon. Member of the Imperial Academy of St. Petersburg; an Hon. Fellow or Member of the Royal Academy of Medicine in Ireland, Paris, Brussels, Munich, and Rome; a Commander of the Legion of Honour; of the Orders of Dannebrog of Denmark, of the Crown of Italy, and the Takovo of Servia; of the Crown of Prussia, St. Iago of Portugal, North Star of Sweden, Ritter-Kreuz of Bavaria, Merit of Spain, and the Medjidie.

An oil painting of MacCormac by H. Harris Brown was presented to Queen's University, Belfast, on March 9th, 1897. There are two oil paintings by the Russian painter, Prince Troubetskoi; the better of these was presented to the College on the death of Lady MacCormac in 1923. Another oil painting hangs in the Medical Committee Room at St. Thomas's Hospital. A marble bust by Alfred Drury, A.R.A., is in the Central Hall at St. Thomas's Hospital; a replica in white marble was presented to the College by subscribers in 1903. A caricature by 'Spy' in Vanity Fair in 1906 gives a good idea of MacCormac's height.

Notes and Recollections of an Ambulance Surgeon, being an Account of Work done under the Red Cross during the Campaign of 1870, London, 1871. This was translated into German by Professor Louis Stromeyer, Hanover, 1871, and into Italian by Dr. Eugenio Bellina, Florence, 1872.
Surgical Operations, Part I, 1885; 2nd ed. 1891. Part II, 1889.
On Abdominal Section for the Treatment of Intraperitoneal Injury, 1887; translated into German, Leipzig, 1888. The most noteworthy of his occasional publications is "Some Observations on Rupture of the Urinary Bladder, with an Account of Two Cases of Intraperitoneal Rupture Successfully Treated by Abdominal Section and Subsequent Suture of the Hernial Rent." - Lancet, 1886, ii, 1118. (The accident is uncommon, attracts little notice at the moment, and is followed by a latent period until fatal peritonitis sets in.) Recovery followed in both instances, the first on record so far as is known.
An Address of Welcome on the Occasion of the Centenary Festival of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, 1900; with the biographical accounts, often with portraits, of the sixty-one Masters or Presidents. There are two issues of this work, which was presented to the distinguished delegates attending the Centenary Meeting - the first in July (220 pp.); the second, with additional matter and illustrations (232 pp.), at Christmas, 1900. MacCormac was materially helped in its preparation by Victor G. Plarr, M.A., Librarian of the College, and by D'Arcy Power, F.R.C.S. He also published an illustrated Souvenir of the Centenary of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, 4to, London, November, 1900.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Dict. Nat. Biog., sub nomine et auct. ibi cit. The Address of Welcome, London, 1900, 221, with an excellent portrait of MacCormac in uniform as Consulting Surgeon during the South African War. Personal knowledge.].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England