Cusack, James William (1788–1861), surgeon, was born 26 May 1788 at Laragh, Maynooth, Co. Kildare, third son among four sons and one daughter of Athanasius Cusack (1749–1813), country gentleman, and Mary Ann Cusack (née Rotheram). Apprenticed in 1806 to Ralph Smith Obré (d. 1820) at Dr Steevens' Hospital, Dublin, he studied at the RCSI and received his letters testimonial (1812) and membership (1814). Entering TCD, he became a scholar, won the Berkeley gold medal, and graduated BA (1809), MB (1812), MD (1850), and M.Ch. (1859).
He was appointed resident surgeon (1813–34), assistant third surgeon (1834–56), governor (1838), and consulting surgeon (1856–61) at Dr Steevens' Hospital, Dublin. As resident surgeon, he became the chief administrator of the hospital and supervised the building of the new theatre. A bold and dexterous operator, he could use the scalpel without hesitation, and overnight became famous for his speedy first-aid treatment of a patient who was bleeding to death from a severed artery due to a gunshot wound. He was however, loath to resort to surgery if it could be avoided, and admitted his nervousness: ‘from my first to my last operation, I have never been able to sleep the night before, but lay thinking how I should operate, what difficulties would arise, and how I should handle them’ (‘In memoriam’ (1862), 255). With Abraham Colles (qv) he helped to establish Steevens' as the leading hospital for surgery in Ireland, commanded a large practice, and became the ‘chief’ (Widdess, 38) of Irish surgeons, particularly in the field of lithotomy, and contributed to the high reputation of the Dublin school of medicine. An able clinical teacher, he and Colles attracted large numbers of students; he supervised seventy-eight apprentices, earning the nickname ‘colonel of the 52nd’ on the attainment of that number. Wearing a red silk nightcap, he conducted his early morning instruction from his bed. The novelist Charles Lever (qv) described in Charles O' Malley (1841) the practical jokes he played on Cusack during his student days, of which Cusack was tolerant.
In 1824 he was a founder of the Medico-Chirurgical School, Park St. (later Lincoln Place), which earned a high reputation, and was its professor (1824–49) of anatomy, physiology, and surgery. On his suggestion, as part-proprietor, it was designed so that it could be converted into a methodist chapel, which could readily be sold should the school fail. It closed (1849) and was later was bought by William Wilde (qv) and became St Mark's Ophthalmic Hospital. On the introduction of a four year diploma in surgery by TCD, Cusack was appointed to the chair (1852–61) and was the first catholic to hold a professorship entirely under the control of the college; at the RCSI, having served as censor (1828), assistant secretary (1826–32), and secretary (1832), he was elected president (1827, 1847, 1858).
He was one of the six founding presidents of the pioneering Pathological Society of Dublin (1838), founded by William Stokes (qv), which promoted cooperation between surgeons and physicians. Both he and Stokes were troubled by the inadequacies of the medical system and gave evidence before the house of commons committee drafting the medical charities act (1843). They requested increased remuneration for doctors who attended dispensaries and fever hospitals, demonstrating that their mortality was almost twice as high (24 per cent) between 1818 and 1834 as that of army officers in combat between 1811 and 1814; they also sought adequate support for the doctors' widows and families. They subsequently published ‘On the mortality of medical practitioners from fever in Ireland’ (Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medical Science, iv, 134–45; v, 112–28 (1847)) and in 1848 were among the founders of the Medical Temporary Relief Committee, a voluntary group which distributed aid to the families of doctors who were experiencing hardship. Cusack also published papers in the Dublin Hospital Reports (1817–30).
Consulting surgeon to several Dublin hospitals, and surgeon-in ordinary to the queen in Ireland, he was elected MRIA (1829) and was a member of the RDS. Two portraits of Cusack and busts by J. R. Kirk (qv) and John Lawler (1820–1901) are held in the RCSI; the Cusack prize student medal was introduced (1861) by Steevens' Hospital Medical School. His half-brother Samuel Colles (1800–53) was apprenticed to him and became an obstetric surgeon at Steevens' Hospital. His seats were at Abbeville, Co. Dublin, and Cussington, Co. Meath. He died (25 September 1861) at his home, 7 Merrion Square North, Dublin, and is buried in St Thomas's churchyard, Dublin.
Cusack married (1818) Elizabeth Frances Bernard (d. 1837), eldest daughter and co-heiress of Joseph Bernard of Greenhills, King's Co. (Offaly); they had four sons and two daughters. Henry Thomas Cusack (1820–65) became a barrister; Sir Ralph Smith Cusack (1821–1910), barrister, JP, DL, was chairman (1865–1905) of the Midland Great Western Railway of Ireland; and James William Cusack (1824–68), the third son, graduated MD (Dubl.) in 1850. One daughter, Elizabeth Cusack, married a surgeon, S. G. Wilmot, president of RCSI. Cusack married secondly (1838) Frances Rothwell (née Radcliffe).