Obituary John Mallet Purser (18391929)
728 OBITUARY JOHN MALLET PURSER (1839-1929.) B Y the death of John Mallet Purser, late Regius Professor of Physic in the University of Dublin, which ~ook place in the ninetieth year of his age on September 18th, 1929, the Irish School of Medicine has lost one. who for many years exercised a dominating influence over i~s mode of thought. Professor Purser may indeed be regarded, as fa r as Ireland is concerned, as the founder of that modern school which looks upon the practice of Medicine in all its branches as a science to be studied and advanced in exactly the same way and by the same methods as other sciences. After leaving school, Purser matriculated in Trinity College, taking the Arts degree of Dublin University in 1860, and the degree of Bachelor of Medicine three years later. Subsequently, he took the conjoint diploma of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and of the King and Queen's College of Physicians of Ireland, and became a Fellow of the latter College in 1876. In 1891 he was given the honorary degree of Doctor of Science of Dublin University. Shortly after qualification he became Professor of Anatomy and of Physiology iu the Carmichael School of Medicine, the School in which he had pursued some of his medical studies as an undergraduate, but for some years he seems to have been undecided as to the exact type of medical career he wished to pursue. He was for a t ime lecturer in Ophthalmology in Steevens' Hospital, and in turn both Surgeon and Physician to the Royal City of Dublin Hospital, but in 1874 the Professor- ship of the Inst itutes of Medicine in the School of Ph~,sic became vacant, and Purser was elected to the post. Although this post c~.rried with it the office of Visiting Physician to Sir Patr ick Dun's Hospital, Purser now decided to give up privat~ practice and to devote himself entirely to the duties of h i s professorial chair. Now began that series of bri l l iant lectures in physiology .in the Medical School in Tr inity College and of clinical lectures in the wards of Sir Patr ick Dun's Hospital which have remained an enduring memory and an abiding stimulus to many genera- tions of pupils all over the world. Purser, like Bacon, taught that every statement must be put to the teat by observation and experiment. He never t ired of pointing out the fallacy of post hoc, ergo ~ prop~er hoc, and insisted that for the establish- ment of a genuine fact i~ was necessary not merely to accumu- late and to sift carefully numerous observations, but it was also necessary to apply the strictest principles of logic in the analysis of those observations, and above all in drawing con- clusions from them. This scientific precision, contrasting sharply as it did with the methods of medical teaching that were then current, made a deep impression. I t was combined with the clearness and lucidity o f expression of a born and eager teacher. As a therapeutist, Purser belonged to that school of thera- peutic nihilism which originated in Vienna. That school has passed away and its place has been taken by a more hopeful school of scientific therapeutics Which bases its conclusions on pharmacological experiments. But though the school of Purser has gone, and rightly gone~ there is no doubt that it exercihed a most important influetice in its day, and prepared the path for genuine advances. Before Purser's day, wild and fantastic theories re~arding the powers of drugs Were current, and poly- pharmacy held sway. Against such methods of t reatment Purser stood out resolutely, pouring relentless scorn on the haphazard procedures then in vogue, and on the slovenly thought which JOHN MALLET PURSER 729 permit ted such proce~lures. More than this, he demonstrated again and again in his wards that pat ients left unt reated by drugs often recovered more quickly and more satisfactori ly than those who were abundantl:~ drenched with nauseat ing concoc- tions. As a diagnost ic ian he was supreme, owing his supremacy to his power of apprec iat ing the physiolegical meaning of symptoms and of discerning which symptoms were impor tant and which might be ignored Noth ing was left unobserved. Even the most tr i f l ing signs and symptoms were taken into account, and each one was given its proper place in bui lding up a diagnosis. ]~lany of his pupils saw in him a doctor similar to the teacher who inspired the memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, and this impres- sion was always deepened when, after examining a ease, he would turn to the class and expose one by one the signs which he had discovered, po int ing out how each sign a~d each symp- tom must inevitably be present as the result, of some under ly ing pathological condition. To many of his younger pupils he was an obiect of some fear, for they drea~ed the b i t ing sarcasm which from t ime to t ime would show up any carelessness in work or looseness of thought. But fear soon turned to venerat ion and affection for " Johnnio Purser , " or even more famil iarly, " J ohnn ie , " as he was known, and in after life innumerable pupils look back to the lessons they had learned from him as the most impor tant lessons in the i r whole career. Stand ing at his graveside, one old pupi l was heard to say: " None of us can ever really know how much we owe to Johnn ie . " Purser did not publish much. He strongly obiected to the pract ice of publ ishing hasty and ill-considered work, but his Manual oJ Histology and Histological Methods, which, appeared early in his career as Professor of Physiology, was a clear and, at the t~me of publ ication, an up-to-date exposit ion of the sub- ject. The book is long out of date, but it is stil l t reasured by many who are for tunate enough to possess it. As a speaker at scientific meetings he was most attract ive, and when he spoke, shmved full in format ion and always inde- pendence of thought. In 1901, on his re t i rement from the Chair of Physiology, his old pupils determined to fo.und a prize and medal as a permanent memorial of his work in ~he School. This, known as the John ~lal let Purser Medal, is awarded annual ly to the student who obtains first place in physiology at the June examinat ion, and is a most coveted dist inction. In 1917, after a period ef ret i rement of s ixteen years, the Board of Tr in i ty College invited Professor Purser to accept the post of Regius Professor of Physic, which had become vacant owing to the death of Professor James Litt le. This he consented to do, and for the next e ight years he performed the ,duties of that Chair with conspicuous abil ity and tact. In 1925 he re- signed, owing to fai l ing health. Purser was of a ret i r ing disposition, and throughout his ent ire life shrank from puhlicity, though there were occasions on which, in the interests of what he thought r ight, he entered into the arena of public controversy. / leading was his main relaxation, but he also devoted much t ime to music, and, in his later years, to travel. Before his de'a~h he had become one of the proud t rad i t ions of Tr in i ty College Medical School. That t rad i t ion will persist as long as the School itself. T. G. M.