Macartney, James (1770–1843), surgeon and anatomist, was born 8 March 1770 in Armagh city, youngest surviving child among four sons and two daughters of James Macartney (d. 1790), gentleman farmer, and Mary Macartney (née Maxwell). He was educated at the Endowed Classical School, Armagh, and by private tutor, before becoming (1789) a clerk in his cousins’ linen business at Newry, Co. Down. A member of the Society of United Irishmen in 1792 (having as a 10-year-old joined the Armagh Volunteers), he helped found a branch in Armagh in 1793. After an unhappy love affair he decided to become a surgeon, in the hope that it would harden his heart. He moved to Dublin (1794), was apprenticed to William Hartigan (qv), and studied anatomy at the RCSI. He attended meetings of the Dublin Society of United Irishmen, and was a friend of the society's leaders, including Theobald Wolfe Tone (qv), but later withdrew, opposing its move towards armed rebellion.
He continued his studies (1796–9) at the Great Windmill School of Medicine, London, and various hospitals, before being appointed demonstrator in anatomy (1798–1800) under John Abernethy (1764–1831) at St Bartholomew's Hospital, where he improved the museum and instituted the registration of post-mortem records. Admitted (1800) MRCS (England) – passing his examination at a day's notice – he began practice as a surgeon and was appointed lecturer in comparative anatomy (1800–11) in the hospital medical school. A pioneering teacher, he gave one of the first systematic and comprehensive lecture courses in anatomy, based on original research, and taught from the standpoint of comparative physiology. Not having served an apprenticeship at the hospital, he was not eligible to join the medical staff, but was duly elected FRS (1811).
He was also surgeon to the Royal Radnor Militia (1803–12). Visiting military hospitals, he made new pathological observations and continued his research in comparative anatomy. He published papers which included the pioneering ‘Observations upon luminous animals’ (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, part ii (1810), 258–93). To meet the need for a good textbook, he edited a translation from Georges Cuvier (1769–1832) as Lectures on comparative anatomy (1802). Posted to Ireland (1811), he left the army on the disbandment of the regiment in 1812. After graduating MD from St Andrews University, Scotland, in 1813, he was appointed the same year professor of anatomy and surgery in the school of physic, TCD, for – despite strong opposition from the supporters of other candidates – his credentials could not be ignored. The position also entailed the office of clinical physician to Sir Patrick Dun's Hospital.
Determined to create a medical school equal or superior to the schools of Edinburgh and London, he carried out a policy of reorganisation and reform and succeeded in bringing the school from obscurity to great distinction. He introduced strict rules requiring the compulsory attendance of medical students, refused to sign attendance certificates for absentees, and raised the standard of examinations. He extended the medical curriculum, introducing a lecture course on pathology – the first in the British Isles. Having opened Dublin's first skin and eye dispensary (1814), he organised lectures on ophthalmology (1818) given by Arthur Jacob (qv), and a comprehensive course on midwifery, on which only introductory lectures had previously been given. Founder (1814), president, treasurer, and librarian (1814–28) of the student Medical Society, a stimulating teacher and a distinguished anatomist, Macartney attracted so many students that a new medical school building (for which he had persistently campaigned) was opened in 1825 – an inspiration to many of his students, who included such luminaries as Robert Graves (qv), Dominic Corrigan (qv), and William Wilde (qv). He thereby made a fundamental contribution to the development of the Irish school of medicine, making Dublin one of the leading medical centres in Europe.
He reorganised the college's anatomical and pathological museum, having begun his collection in London in order to illustrate his lectures – though his aspiration to create the best anatomy house in Europe was never fulfilled. He conducted autopsies on patients who died in Sir Patrick Dun's Hospital, and used these for instruction in pathology till 1826, when the hospital governors ruled that post-mortems should be the responsibility of the doctor in charge. This effectively prevented Macartney from teaching and undertaking research in pathology and from collecting specimens. TCD having declined to buy his museum, he sold it to Cambridge University (1836). A prominent figure in the fight to gain cadavers for scientific research, Macartney published (1828) a document signed by himself and ninety-nine prominent citizens, bequeathing their bodies for dissection. He addressed public meetings and gave evidence before a parliamentary committee (1828), which led to the passing of the anatomy act (1832), making adequate provision for anatomical research.
Highly praised by ‘Erinensis’ (author of satirical articles in the Lancet) who described him as ‘an extraordinary personage’ and a ‘biographical paradox’ (Fallon, 89–90), Macartney wrote in his diary: ‘It will appear from the history of my life . . . that my character has often been misunderstood by even some of my most intimate friends . . . My desire of acquiring excellence in every pursuit I have undertaken has been the chief means of success . . . which would have been much greater . . . if I could have descended to the dishonest means so commonly employed for the purpose’ (Thornton, 164–5). He was often the centre of controversy, and his career was marred by hostility from colleagues (possibly out of rivalry) and disputes with college authorities; he finally resigned (1837) over a disagreement concerning lecture times.
He made several original anatomical observations and published important works, including contributions on comparative anatomy to Abraham Rees, The cyclopaedia: or Universal dictionary of arts, sciences, and literature (1819), and his classic and pioneering A treatise on inflammation (1838) received enthusiastic reviews from medical journals. His writings are recorded in Thornton, 171–2.
Macartney travelled widely in Europe and was acquainted with leading medical and scientific figures. His honours included the conferring of an hon. LLD (Cantab.), hon. MD (Dubl.), MRIA (1812), and fellowship of the Linnaean Society (1811) and of the (R)K&QCPI (1824), from the last of which he resigned in 1826. Elected council member at the founding of the Pathological Society of Dublin (1838), and hon. professor to the RHA, he was also a member of many foreign scientific and medical societies – he was, for instance, a corresponding member of the Paris Royal Academy of Medicine (1839) and of the Société Française de Statistique Universelle (1839).
Of liberal and progressive views, Macartney remained true to the faith and morals of unitarianism, in which he had been reared. A copy of his diary (1770–1830) is held in the Medical College Library, St Bartholomew's Hospital, London. He died suddenly 9 March 1843 at his home, 31 Upper Merrion St., Dublin, whilst completing a paper to be read before the (R)K& QCPI; his last words were of philosophising on death.
He married (20 August 1795) Mary Ekenhead; no evidence has been found of children.