Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland Coláiste Ríoga na Máinleá in Éirinn

My 6 years at RCSI

10 October 2016

 Al Mutchnik

After all these years my memories of first arriving in Dublin have not been erased. I checked into the Moira Hotel which was at the bottom of Grafton St. and is now nonexistent and next to the original Jury's which was almost adjacent. On that first night, I met Johnny Upperman who was the manager and who a few years later became the manager of Collinstown airport. He told me to go across the street if I wanted a good meal. That restaurant was Jamai's which was as nice as any I've been to or eaten at to this day but is also nonexistent.

There is a part of my story which differs from most of the young students who became my classmates at RCSI. I had only been discharged from the Royal Canadian Air Force less than two years before I joined the first year medical class in 1947 at RCSI.I was a young commissioned officer who grew much older than my age living through and being aware of some of the events and inhuman treatment displayed by mankind during World War II.

Fortunately, I was unscathed but the wreckage of London, Berlin and Hiroshima and the barbarism against humanity left a permanent mark and a sobering influence on my mind. I came to RCSI able to overcome but not forget the past and at the same time with a sound and independent mind and the will to achieve the best grades. By the way, in 1952, I won the silver medal for the prize essay of the biological society.

Yes, the smell of the anatomy lab will always remain a distinctive odor but there were also other smells that I brought with me such as the smell from the fuel on the tarmac and the smell from exploded ammunition.

My next priority on arrival was to find proper digs which would allow me a roof over my head and the necessary comforts to focus on my studies. With the help of others and my own networking I will briefly mention the various locations I lived in different parts of the city and the need to move on.

I started in a room on Greenlea Road in Terenure which lasted for two months. I realized that it was unsuitable as well as being too far from the

From there, I moved to Pembroke St. where I shared a furnished flat with another roommate. This flat was operated by the Pembroke Nursing Home which was located across the street. We had the second floor and the ground floor was occupied by Father O'Doherty who was Professor of Psychiatry at UCD. He was a young and progressive thinking Jesuit priest with whom I had several stimulating discussions on world affairs. These rooms were beautiful except my roommate had a girlfriend and liked to party where I needed quiet. It also turned out to be very expensive as we had our own cook who would see to our meals.

My next stop was to move to a more modest flat on Castlewood Ave. in Rathmines. Here the problem was my meals. I disliked cooking and shopping for food took up too much of my time.

So after more than a year, I finally found a boarding house on Bloomfield Ave off South Circular Rd. not far from where the famous playwright George Bernard Shaw was born a century earlier. This became my permanent home. I kept the room in later years even after living at Richmond and Rotunda Hospitals while doing my internship. It was run by an elderly couple who had no children. She was French which probably accounted for her tasty meals. I had the room upstairs which was bare except for a kitchen table that acted as my desk and a saggy bed. Lighting the fireplace was always a challenge. Coming home, chilled to the bone from the frequently rainy weather, I can remember standing in front of the fireplace with a newspaper sometimes for over an hour until the few wood chips and wet peat briquettes would finally catch a steady flame.

Once our evening meal was finished the kitchen was closed. After studying for most of the night I would crave something to eat. My choices were limited but I had to make do with what was available. I would walk to Kelly's Corner where there was a fish and chip shop. The place did not look too clean, the newspaper wrapping looked old and worn and the cat would be circling the tables. If I continued to walk further, the choice was not much better. The restaurant was called the Green Rooster which was Dublin's answer to a late night café.

I had made a pledge to myself as my work load increased that I would relax on Saturday, come back on Sunday to prepare for the following week (this had nothing to do with Father Matthew's pledge of sobriety). I seriously believe that this routine by having a drink on the weekend as well as other diversions helped me maintain my sanity, better focus on my studies and survive the stresses of those years.

 St Stephen's Green Photo: RS Magowan


As the College was located in the heart of the city, my daytime activities and food choices were far better. On those rare days when the sun was out, I would cross the street to St. Stephen's Green, sit on one of those folding beach chairs overlooking the duck pond and read or doze.

If I had a break from class in the morning, Bewleys which was close by and famous for its coffee and pastry was always a frequent stop. If my thirst craved something stronger, I would continue down Grafton Street to Davy Byrnes. It was either a Guinness or an ale accompanied by a sardine sandwich. I must qualify that their version of a sandwich was a narrow slice of toast with a single sardine occupying the surface. Davy Byrnes was not only my favorite pub but a great place for comradery. It was a watering hole for RCSI and Trinity students as well as a wide cross section of interesting people. Another favorite hangout for lunch was the restaurant in the basement of Switzer's Department Store where the food was good and the prices reasonable.

 Davy Byrnes Photo: Davy Byrnes

In time, I had not only developed friends from College but met people from other walks of life. These friends and contacts broadened the scope of my activities. There was no shortage of entertainment. I happened to fall in with an interesting group of beautiful young ladies who were models that belonged to the Betty Whelan modelling school which I believe Maureen O'Hara attended before her movie career. They would invite me to parties and I would ask them out on dates as well.

Gaiety Theatre Photo: RTÉ Archives

The choices of an evening's entertainment could vary from dancing, movies, live shows and plays. As I remember, if you fancied dancing there would be the Four Provinces or the Olympia. You could go to the Gaiety Theatre which was around the corner from RCSI where they had plays or a comedy act. The Savoy movies were on O'Connell Street next to the GPO. I remember seeing Danny Kaye at the Theatre Royal when he was on tour in Europe. More classical plays were available at the famous Old Gate Theatre and the Abbey where works by Shaw and Synge were often performed.

I became good friends with Bill McDaniels, another classmate who came from Seattle, Washington. He was also a member of our winning basketball team. He got married after our third year and moved into a charming old brick gatehouse in Dun Laoghaire. I would often visit them to give him a hand with various household chores. At the same time, I loved the seaside atmosphere and a chance to eat fresh seafood looking over the sea.

Another group of students with whom I became friendly were from Jamaica, BWI. These included Herbie Eldemire, Ossie Tomlinson and Jack De Lissa. They brought with them the Calypso music which became very popular during those years. Occasionally I would be invited to their apartment to join in the sing songs.

In December 1955, Beverly and I got married in New York and flew the next day to Jamaica to spend our honeymoon in Ocho Rios. We invited my friends who were already in well- established practices to join us at our hotel for dinner. We were to leave the next day from Montego Bay but unbeknown to us Herbert Eldemire canceled our flight and sent a limo to bring us back to his home where we stayed for another three days.

Another event which I found unusual was the bonafide. If you were out with a crowd out for the evening and the local pub was closing, you could continue the party by driving to the outskirts of the city or township, knock on the door of one of their pubs, say you were from Dublin and they would let you in and serve you. This custom dated back to the traveler whose coach would stop late at night and allow him the privilege of food and drink.

During my first and second years, the main subject focus was on anatomy and physiology. I spent a considerable amount of time in the anatomy lab during regular classes with the supervising lecturer going over the various dissections. At other times, I would go to the lab on my own and review the dissection and bony articulations with Mr. Tom Gary who was a tutor and demonstrator.

 AK Henry Professor A.K. Henry

Professor A.K. Henry was appointed professor of anatomy the year I arrived and later when I organized an inter-collegiate basketball league for Ireland, I invited him to become the honorary coach of our team which he accepted like a good sport although he was not familiar with the game. Before I left Dublin, he gave me a signed copy of his book, ‘Extensile Exposure of the Lower Limbs', which I cherish.

The O'Connor clan were well represented during my years at RCSI. Professor O'Connor was professor of pathology and his niece Noirin O'Connor was a classmate of mine. His nephew Hugh O'Connor was several years behind me and was a member of the RCSI basketball team.I saw Noirin at our 50th Class reunion but lost track of Hugh except for an unusual occurrence many years later.

My wife and I attended a charity ball in Beverly Hills for the John Wayne Cancer Foundation for St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica. One of the leading fund raisers were Mr. & Mrs. Carroll O'Connor, the famous actor. After introducing myself and telling him my relationship with his younger brother, he was delighted. I later sent him a framed photo of the RCSI basketball team which included Hugh.

Some of the stories and idiosyncrasies that uniquely identified the individual professor, clinician or surgeon at RCSI were passed on from year to year by the students as well as my own personal experiences with them.I feel good being able to remember and memorialize these men who played such an important role in my early years at RCSI. They helped mold my future in medicine with their unique style and Irish humor and left many of their traits with me.

 Mercer Hospital Mercer Hospital (Photo: Kevin McMahon)

Starting my second and third years, I began to recognize that RCSI had a closer relationship with certain teaching hospitals than those from Trinity College or UCD. Mercer Hospital was located at the top of Grafton Street around the corner from the college on the site that is now occupied by a large shopping center. It was an old building that must have served the community for more than two hundred years before my arrival and had a door off the side street with a sign saying "Alms for the Poor". I had never seen those words used on a building before.

Dr. McNally, an internist and Dr. Lewis, a cardiologist were two of the staff physicians at Mercers. Because the hospital was around the corner, I spent considerable amount of time attending their clinics. It was this kind of hands on teaching in a large ward with a concentrated number of unusual cases with difficult diagnoses that became an invaluable learning experience for me in my future years of practice. It taught me to recognize signs and symptoms before ordering blood tests and x-rays.

Bouchier Hayes Mr. Bouchier-Hayes

Mr. Bouchier-Hayes was one of the surgeons at Mercers Hospital whose claim to fame spread amongst us that he could do an appendectomy - skin to skin in the record time of ten minutes.

The Richmond Hospital was another RCSI stronghold located on the other side of the Liffey River behind the Four Courts. It was a long walk from RCSI to get to the quays, crossover the Ha'penny bridge and zig zag my way to the hospital. It was much larger than Mercers and just as old. After my third year, I was assigned to the student living quarters where I really felt a part of the hospital staff.

 Richmond Hospital Richmond Hospital (Photo: Built Dublin)

Adjacent to the hospital proper, was a large outdoor, open air balcony structure that kept the T.B. patients. They were heavily wrapped in
blankets and the fresh air was part of the treatment at the time. Another adjacent free standing building that always freaked me out had a large sign over the top which read Home for the Dying. This area was meant for the terminally ill patients with irreversible illnesses. It seemed to me a very inhumane description as though it was a garbage disposal dump.

Fortunately, I was only required to visit Grange Gorman Hospital for several sessions. This was the psychiatric hospital which unfortunately was as primitive as the treatment rendered in those years for the "insane" or disturbed. I'd rather not go any further describing my exposure except to say that it was a House of Horrors.

The staff doctors at the Richmond also left a permanent imprint on my mind, not only for their fine teaching skills but also for some of their affectations and reputations. Professor Abramson, aka "The Abe" was professor of medicine at RCSI and head of cardiology at the Richmond Hospital. He had developed a reputation as a brilliant cardiologist not only in Ireland but also in England where he was frequently called in consultation. When he arrived at the hospital at his usual time in his chauffeured Rolls Royce, a large gong was rung by the door attendant, like the introduction to a J. Arthur Rank film. I would be standing at the entrance with the other senior residents to greet him with the pomp and respect he deserved.

It was unusual to have the son of one of the staff surgeons, Mr. A.B.Clery, whose portrait now hangs in the examining hall, as a fellow intern. Tony Clery and I lived in the student quarters and I was told that after he graduated he went to the Mayo Clinic on a fellowship but then I lost track of him.

Mr. Coleman Byrnes, better known as Collie Byrnes became one of my favorite surgeons. He was a short, feisty character with a moustache and
an accentuated Irish brogue whom I assisted frequently. One of his most challenging operations was cancer of the esophagus. After the resection of the tumor he would try to bring the two ends together with various materials in the hope that they would not be rejected. On several occasions, he would tell me he had to suddenly leave for a few days and would I supervise the patient's post-op care.

Although the patient was on IVs, then clear fluids and soft solids by the fourth day the suture line at each end of the anastomosis inevitably would break down eventually leading to the patient's demise. Part of my job was to perform the autopsy and record the findings.

What I later learned was that Mr. Byrnes could be called upon to help an injured patriot who was being sheltered while fighting for the cause. He would take a bag filled with sterile instruments able to remove a bullet if necessary under unsanitary conditions (at great risk to himself).

Professor Bill McGowan was a senior resident during my internship at the Richmond Hospital. He was helpful in guiding me during my early experiences and I cherished his advice and friendship. Years later he returned to the College to become Registrar. He definitely influenced my early decision to donate funds to RCSI.

When I began my Ob/Gyn training at the Rotunda Hospital, I began to realize that it had become world renown because of its outstanding training for students especially from various parts of Europe and other parts of the world. One of the main reasons for its popularity with other Universities was the fact that the South of Ireland was primarily Catholic and that birth control was forbidden and outlawed. Therefore, the average woman during her childbearing years could give birth to anywhere from 10 to 15 children. Because of this volume of childbirths there was ample teaching material to prepare a student for which way to deliver a baby including a breech or forceps delivery.

Many of these techniques are considered obsolete and too dangerous to the mother and child and a caesarean section is now performed whenever there is a difficult delivery. I was fortunate to have learned these techniques which belonged to another era. After the allotted time, I later took extra time to get a Licentiate of Midwifery.

There were times while at the Rotunda Hospital where I would walk up O'Connell Street to the Metropole. This building stood next to the GPO and was noted for its fine restaurant and bar. There was also a ballroom upstairs used for major events. I remember the bartender whose name was Charles because he became famous for winning an international cocktail competition with a cocktail called a Pims #1 or #2.

A full course dinner was well beyond my means so I found a way of just ordering an appetizer and still be well fed. The waiter would pull up a cart laden with various assortments of hors d'oeuvres including seafood, cold cuts and vegetables. By the time I would point out my selections from the trolley, he had covered my plate completely. I always had an excuse for leaving early before ordering the entrée being needed back at the hospital at a certain time.

When I look back on the years I spent at RCSI, these stories above are a very small part of the experiences I will never forget nor would I ever have wanted to miss.

I applied the training and teachings that I learned to my medical practice which for 47 years gave me the tools to perform my chosen profession.

Dr Al Mutchnik, Medicine, Class of 1953