AMONG the few physicians of the seventeenth century whose names have been preserved from the stream of oblivion, is Nial O’Glacan of Donegal. Forgotten to-day, in his time he was one of the most distinguished members of the medical profession in Spain, France, and Italy, where for many years he had a long and distinguished career. Born in Donegal in the latter half of the sixteenth century, it is probable that he received the rudiments of his medical education from one of the families of hereditary physicians which at that time were attached to the Irish chieftains.

In the province of Ulster the hereditary physicians of the O’Donnell family were the MacDuinntsleibhes (later MacDunleavy and Donlevy), and several of their names are mentioned in the annals of the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. The family had originally resided in County Down, but were driven out by the Norman chieftain de Courcy. We owe to several members of this family some of the finest Irish medical manuscripts in existence. There is a manuscript in the British Museum (Harley 546) at the end of which is written: “Here ends Gualteru’s book of the doses of medicines.

Manuscript copy by Conor O’ Dunleavy 1459. copyright British Museum

Cormac MacDuinntsleibhe has put this summary into Irish for Dermot MacDonall O’Line, and to him and his sons may so profitable a commentary render good service. On the fourth day of the Kalends of April this lecture was finished at Cloyne in the year 1459.”

The assumption, then, that O’Glacan was trained by a member of this family, in his native county, may be regarded as probably correct.

The training largely consisted in learning the aphorisms and other works of Hippocrates and certain works of Galen. This fact was mentioned by Campion in his History written in 1571, and also by O’Glacan himself in the preface of his treatise on the Plague. Early in life he left Ireland, and settled in Spain as early as 1602. This latter fact is inferred from his statement that he treated the great Hugh O’Donnell, Lord of Tirconnell, with a special poultice for a “venereo bubo” in the royal palace of the King of Spain. It is known that Hugh O’Donnell died at Simancas on 10th September, 1602, after an illness of fourteen days. For many years he travelled about the cities of Spain. In 1621 he was at Salamanca, and in 1622 Valentia, where he remained for two years. In these latter years he was engaged in treating the plague in special hospitals, and was, no doubt, highly paid for his services. Bubonic plague at that time swept Europe with terrific force, invading Spain, France, England, and Italy. Thus in 1630, eighty thousand people perished in Milan, and over five hundred thousand in the Venetian Republic, while in 1665 London lost sixty-nine thousand of its inhabitants. “The physicians delegated to treat the plague wore a strange prophylactic garb, consisting of a long red or black gown of smooth material, often of Morocco or Cordovan leather, with leather gauntlets, leather masks having glass-covered openings for the eyes, and a long beak or snout, filed with antiseptics or fumigants, for the nose. In his hand the pest-doctor carried a wand to feel the pulse.” He was held in considerable estimation for his dangerous services.

A similar costume from a 1656 engraving by Paul Fürst.

In 1627 O’Glacan was in France, and in 1628 he was appointed physician to the Pest Hospital of Toulouse. In the following year he published the Tractatus de Peste, an interesting commentary on the treatment of plague.

Louis XIII, King of France 1610-1643

Some years later he was appointed Professor of Medicine in the University of Toulouse and Physician to the King of France. In 1646 he proceeded to Bologna, where he became the leading Professor of Medicine in the University, and published a system of medicine, Cursus Medicus, Bononiae, 1655, two volumes. The date of his death is unknown, and no further details of his life are available. The system of medicine is an extensive quarto containing three parts in two volumes. The first part deals with Physiology, or a general prolegomena to medicine as taught in the early seventeenth century. This part numbers some 436 pages. The second part deals with Pathology, or the causes and general symptoms of disease. This part, containing the theories of the time, is not so interesting, and numbers 372 pages. The third and last part deals with clinical medicine, especially the signs of disease, on crises, the pulse and the urine, great stress being laid on the examination of the two latter (as vividly portrayed in some of the canvases of Jan Steen, Franz Van Mieris, and Gabriel Metsu). The third part is the most extensive, and contains 876 pages. It is probable that only a small edition of this large work was printed, as the only copy in the country is the one in the British Museum. 

Plague mask currently on display at the German Museum of Medical History in Ingolstadt

No other copies are to be found in the medical libraries of Great Britain. Much more interesting than the above work is O’Glacan’s little treatise on Plague, the Tractatus de Peste, Tolose, 1629. I have illustrated this article with a reproduction of the actual size of the title page from my own copy.’The volume is a small 12mo, containing16+ 258 pages, and is divided into twenty chapters, with an appendix. This little volume is even rarer than his major work; the only other copy of which I am aware is to be found in the British Museum. The interest of this work consists in the many personal observations scattered through the text, and incidentally the treatise shows a very extensive knowledge of the dread disease.

We do not expect to find correct ideas on the etiology of plague, but on all other points that were a matter of observation only, there is a wealth of valuable and interesting material, and even some three or four reports of post-mortem examinations. Although the symptomatology of plague is protean, still in a few concise and accurate phrases the symptom-complex of the disease is clearly presented. Thus in chapter three: “The signs of plague are numerous …at one time headache and sleeplessness is troublesome, at another time heavy sleep, thirst, restlessness, vomiting, diarrhoea, loss of appetite, or again hunger, livid colour of the skin, or yellow. A prominent facies, an anxious expression, sudden lassitude, weakness of the limbs, and pain in the joints. High and continued fever, delirium, depression of spirits, rashes on the skin, buboes, tumours, syncope, a sense and feeling of weakness, andl other signs which denote a great putridity of the humours.

Although humoral pathology is now replaced by bacteriology, the above description includes most of the leading symptoms of plague. In addition, wherever possible, there is a constant reference to the authority of Hippocrates and Galen, whose opinions are regarded as final. The fourth chapter deal with Prognosis, and states that “Plague, like other acute diseases, is of doubtful and dubious prognosis. The following signs were frequently observed by me, that stout and well-nourished patients with looseness of the bowels, vomiting, with or without a bubo, rarely happened to be restore(d to health.” There is a considerable number of personal observations scattered throughout the work.

The headings of the chapters are interesting, as those on Purgatives, Clisters, Remedies of the Author,  Remedies for the Poor, Buboes, Morbillis (Skin Rashes), Headache, Coma, Vomiting, and the Fumigation of Houses and Garments.

Under Phlebotomy we learn that it is especially for the sanguineous, bilious, and other robust persons, for the depressed individual and nurses rarely, and never for pregnant women. Also that blood-letting is useful in high fever, but always with prudence. Purgatives and clisters are recommended in certain cases. The most valuable sideline in the treatise is the notes on three post-mortems in Chapter 8, and another in Chapter 15. In this last the petechial haemorrhages covering the surface of the lung are described, as also the great swelling of the spleen, and that it was four pounds in weight. These observations entitle O’Glacan to be claimed as an early pioneer in pathological anatomy, the father of Pathology being generally regarded as 

Morgagni (1682-1771). Modern readers might be interested in one of O’Glacan’s prescriptions. It is as follows: R. Mithraditii et Confectionis de Hyacintho āā, one ounce; Rad. Tormentillae, 2 drachms; Boli Armeni et Coralli rubri prep. āā, 1 drachm; Diamargaritanis frigidi et Diatriasantali āā, 1 drachm. Sacchari Candi, 3 drachms. Conservae acetosae, 2 ounces. Camphorae, 20 grs. Syrupi de succo limonum, quod suffcit. Signa.-Make a mixture after the manner of an opiate, and take one drachm by itself, or with a convenient liquor, as often as necessary.

In an age of polypharmacy the above was an agreeable mixture, but there were sone others not so palatable, such as “unum vidimus uno aut altero suae vrinae haustu curatum.” There are many other points of interest in this little volume, but lack of space forbids me to mention them. Those interested in historical medicine will find plenty of original material for study in the lives of Irish physicians.

Written in 1935 by Samuel Simms, M.D., B.SC., D.P.H., M.R.C.P.