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Favourite DIB lives: Sir Charles Alexander Cameron, medical officer

27 April 2020

Selected by Dr Frank Cullen (Irish Historic Towns Atlas), Sir Charles Cameron was a Victorian polymath who served as Chief Medical Officer for Dublin and instituted significant advances in health and sanitation for the city. Part of our DIB Favourites #LockdownReading series.

Introduction by Frank Cullen

To choose one life from among the thousands in the DIB is by no means an easy feat, but in the present era of medical uncertainty, Helen Andrews’ thought-provoking article on the life of Sir Charles Alexander Cameron, Chief Medical Officer of Health for Dublin City, makes for an interesting read. This name first struck a chord with me when researching a Masters thesis in 1998. His ubiquitous presence was felt in all aspects of public health in late nineteenth-century Dublin. Like so many of his Victorian counterparts he was a polymath, whose breadth of learning encompassed medicine, chemistry, geology, language, poetry and history. However his greatest achievements lay in the field of public health, where his expert knowledge and assured leadership proved the guiding light in nineteenth-century Dublin’s battle against infectious disease. Although staunchly Protestant, politics played no part in his professional obligation to improve the lives of the mainly Catholic slum dwellers. In this endeavour he introduced a number of pioneering initiatives to fight contagion, some worthy of note include the establishment of the Pigeon House Isolation Hospital, a special ambulance for fever patients, widespread female instruction in domestic hygiene, and the free provision of disinfectant! Food for thought for the times we live in.

Sir Charles Alexander Cameron

by Helen Andrews

Cameron, Sir Charles Alexander (1830–1921), medical officer, chemist, and writer, was born 16 July 1830 in Dublin, one of two sons and a daughter of Capt. Ewen Cameron (1787–1846), a Scottish soldier, and his Irish wife Belinda (née Smith). He was educated in Dublin and Guernsey (1844–6). Forced by his father's death to relinquish his aspiration to join the army, he entered the laboratory of the apothecaries Bewley & Evans, Dublin. He read widely, studied chemistry in Germany, and studied at the School of Medicine of the Apothecaries' Hall, the Dublin School of Medicine, and the Original School of Medicine (Ledwich Medical School), graduating MD (Dubl., 1865), becoming licentiate (1868) and member (1880) of the RCSI, and gaining a diploma of public health (Cantab., 1877).

On the founding of the Dublin Chemical Society, he was elected ‘professor of chemistry’ though still a student, and gave his two-hour inaugural lecture (12 December 1852) – the first of 8,000 lectures – without notes before a distinguished audience. His lectures and practical demonstrations aroused great interest and were widely reported in the press. He subsequently lectured throughout Ireland in several institutions including the Original School of Medicine (1857–74), Dr Steevens' Hospital Medical School (1858–74), and the Agricultural Institution, Glasnevin, Co. Dublin (1874–1902).A happy instance of his acumen in chemistry was his claim to have discovered kaolin on the estate of J. C. Bloomfield – a claim also made by Bloomfield. In his autobiography, Cameron describes how on a shooting expedition with Bloomfield at Castle Caldwell, Lough Erne, Co. Fermanagh, he noted a white patch of clay, tested it, and informed Bloomfield that it was good porcelain clay. Though the news led to a controversy (known as the ‘china war’) in Saunders' News Letter, led by J. A. Galbraith, who doubted the claim, the discovery led to the founding (1857) of the renowned Belleek porcelain factory. Cameron received the first article – a saucer – made from the clay.

His interests extended to public health and he was appointed professor of hygiene and political medicine (1867–1920) and chemistry (1875–1920) of the RCSI. As president (1885) he presided over the admission of women students to the college; he also became hon. secretary (1892) and emeritus professor (1920–21), the first person in the college to be so honoured. On the death of his wife (28 November 1883) after ‘twenty-one years of unalloyed happiness’ (Cameron, Autobiography, 28), he retired from social engagements for three years. In this period the centenary of the RCSI occurred (1884), in celebration of which he wrote the History of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and of the Irish schools of medicine (1886). Though marred by inaccuracy – he completed 790 pages in two years, while ‘his literary gifts [were] not equal to his industry’ (Widdess, ix) – it remains an indispensable contribution to medical history. His revised edition was published in 1916.

He made useful contributions to pure and applied chemistry, but is best known for his contribution to hygiene and public health. The first appointed public analyst for Dublin (1862–1921), he made effective use of the powers provided under the adulteration of food act (1860). Among other measures, he closed many slaughter houses, established an abattoir, and condemned over 161,000 cwt of diseased and unsound food. He was subsequently chosen as public analyst for many Irish counties and towns and was often referred to as the ‘The public analyst of Ireland’ (Davis, 313).

Appointed Dublin medical officer of health (1874) and medical superintendent officer of health (1879), a post which in 1881 was combined with that of chief sanitary officer, he was responsible for numerous reforms in public health administration, particularly in the provision of public housing (begun 1881 in Barrack (Benburb) St.). He effectively advertised the plight of the poor by ensuring that when the prince of Wales came to Dublin (1885), he visited not only the model houses of the working classes but also the slums, which the prince stated should be condemned. Believing that public health begins with decent accommodation, Cameron campaigned repeatedly for greater provision of public housing, and in How the poor live (1904) argued that municipalities should confine their activities exclusively to housing the poorest in the community with money raised by ratepayers.

Convinced that adequate sanitation would diminish the incidence of infectious diseases, he undertook many measures including the improvement of the water supply and drainage system, the introduction of widespread sanitary inspections on domestic and industrial buildings, and the free provision of disinfectant, as well as the training of female sanitary officers to educate the poor in domestic hygiene. In December 1902, fearing a serious outbreak of smallpox after six cases had been reported in Dublin, Cameron was responsible for the establishment of the Pigeon House Isolation Hospital (opened in March 1903 with accommodation for fifty patients and later converted into a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients) and designed an ambulance for fever patients, which was copied by sanitary authorities throughout Europe. Presiding over a period of improved public health, he witnessed the death rate from infectious diseases decline from 9 per 1,000 in 1879 to 1.3 in 1919. Among other posts, he was scientific adviser to the government in criminal cases (1870–81) and external examiner in sanitary science at RUI and Cambridge University.

Joint proprietor and founding editor of the Agricultural Review (1858–63) and editor of the Dublin Hospital Gazette (1860–62), he revised the tenth (1877) and twelfth (1881) editions of J. F. W. Johnstone's Elements of agricultural chemistry and geology. He published twelve books, including the Chemistry of agriculture (1857), Elementary agricultural chemistry and geology (1896), The prevention of contagious diseases (1871), and Manual of hygiene (1874), thirty-eight annual reports on The state of public health of Dublin, and numerous articles in professional journals, newspapers, and magazines. He also wrote his Reminiscences (1913), Autobiography (1920), and Short poems translated from the German (1876).

He received numerous honours and distinctions including a knighthood (1885), a CB (1899), and the freedom of the city of Dublin (1911); a street, square, and housing estate were named after him, and an engraving is preserved in the NLI. Conferred with an hon. MD (RUI) (1896) and hon. FRCPI (1898), he was the recipient of the Henry Harben gold medal for public health (1902). Member and honorary member of many Irish and foreign learned societies, he was president of several including the Public Health Medical Society (1880–90), the State Medicine Section of RAMI (1882), the Royal Institute of Public Health (1889–93), the Irish Medical Association (1891–2), the Society of Analytical Chemistry (1893–4), and the Society of Public Analysts of Great Britain and Ireland (1893–4); an original member (1877), he was elected vice-president of the Institute of Chemistry of Great Britain and Ireland (1884–90) and of the RDS (1906–21).

A freemason, he was initiated into Lodge 125, Dublin (1859); the Charles A. Cameron Lodge 72, Dublin, was named after him (1907). He was deputy grand master of the Great Priory of Ireland, sovereign grand commander of the supreme council of the 33rd degree, and was elected deputy grand master of the Grand Lodge of Ireland (1911–20).

Staunchly protestant – he was, nevertheless, a leading member of the ecumenical movement in Ireland – and a strong unionist, he records in his diary (preserved in the RCSI library) watching the British troops marching into Dublin during Easter week: ‘The Lincoln's [sic] came in singing. Annie [his housekeeper] supplied some of the soldiers with tea and sandwiches’ (28 April 1916). At the request of the home secretary, he inspected (16 December 1916) the South Camp Sinn Féin internment camp at Frongoch, north Wales, where inmate W. J. Brennan-Whitmore described him dressed in his tall silk hat, as a white-bearded ‘immensely old man . . . bent over on a walking stick . . . yet . . . his sharp, intelligent face and keen piercing eyes gave indications of a mental alertness and acumen far above the ordinary’ (191). He believed that Cameron's sympathetic hearing of the prisoners' complaints led to their release days later.

An ardent admirer of drama and a friend of leading actors, Cameron became a noted theatre critic, writing for the Agricultural Review and the Irish Times. A member of many clubs, he founded (1899) and was president of the fashionable Corinthian Club and ‘appeared to be a permanent feature of Dublin life’ (Lyons, 52); he revelled in dinner parties, writing his last article on ‘How to live long and happily. The excellent habit of dining out’ (London Daily Express, 20 December 1917). He died 27 February 1921 at his home, 27 Raglan Rd, and is buried in Mount Jerome cemetery, Dublin. He married (1862) Lucie Frances MacNamara, cousin of William Gorman Wills; they had six sons and two daughters. One son, aged 8, died from scarlet fever, two others from phthisis (TB) during their twenties, another committed suicide, and his eldest son drowned aged 47.

Sources: Grand Lodge of A. F. & A. Masons of Ireland, archives; A catalogue of graduates who have proceeded to degrees in the University of Dublin (1869); J. Leyland, Contemporary medical men and their professional work (1888); Men and women of the time (1899); Allibone; C. A. Cameron, History of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (rev. ed. 1916); W. J. Brennan-Whitmore, With the Irish at Frongoch (1917); C. A. Cameron, Autobiography of Sir Charles A. Cameron (1920); RCSI: Council Minute Book 1916–21IBL, nos 10–12 (May–July 1921), 142; Eamonn Mac Thomais, ‘Sir Charles A. Cameron’, Dublin Hist. Rec., xxii, no. 2 (1968), 214–24; W. J. Davis, ‘In praise of Irish chemists’, RIA Proc., lxxvii, B (1977), 309–16; Med. Directory, 1920; James Meenan and Desmond Clarke, The Royal Dublin Society 1731–1981 (1981); J. D. H. Widdess, The Royal College of Surgeons and its medical school 1784–1984 (3rd ed. 1984), viii–x; J. B. Lyons, ‘The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and its worthies’, Dublin Hist. Rec., xlviii, no. 1 (spring 1995), 52

Image: Public domain reproduction of work of art, from Reminiscences of Sir Charles A. Cameron, C. B., Hodges Figgis (1913)


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