Synge, Victor Millington (1893–1976), physician and professor of medicine, was born 5 September 1893 at 15 Upper Leeson St., Dublin, son of Edward Synge, land agent, of Kingscourt, Co. Cavan, and Ellen Frances Synge. He was a nephew of the playwright John Millington Synge (qv) and of Samuel Synge, who graduated in medicine, took holy orders, sailed for China as a missionary, and published ‘Notes on Chinese medicine’ in the Dublin Jn. Med. Sc., cxix (1905), 184–9.
Victor Synge attended St Andrew's College. A foundation scholar of TCD and Hudson scholar in the Adelaide Hospital, he enjoyed walking in the Dublin and Wicklow hills, an avocational pursuit that influenced his working methods—for he paced up and down endlessly in his room as he studied, to the irritation of the student below, later a well known surgeon. For many years Synge climbed the Sugarloaf mountain on Sundays. He served in the Royal Navy as a surgeon-probationer before graduating MB (1918). He proceeded MD and DPH (1918), spending some time in Paris, where dermatology was his particular interest. He was admitted MRCPI (1920) and elected fellow (1921). A brief period as pathologist to Sir Patrick Dun's Hospital led to an appointment (1921) as visiting physician to the Royal City of Dublin Hospital, Baggot St. Henceforth he was to practise at consultant level as a general physician, and was elected to the chair of medical jurisprudence in the RCSI (1923), moving in 1930 to the professorship of medicine, from which he resigned in 1934 on becoming king's professor of the practice of medicine at TCD. He was appointed regius professor of physic in 1960.
Victor Synge's contributions to medical literature were not numerous. According to his younger contemporary Brendan O'Brien (1903-84), he was reluctant to write unless he felt he had something of importance to say. Diphtheria and rheumatic fever were major clinical problems on which he did comment usefully, and he sent a descriptive note to the Irish Journal of Medical Science regarding a tumour of the spinal cord diagnosed competently in Baggot Street in 1926: a 39-year-old woman had developed paralysis of the legs with sensory loss below the waist, and the cerebrospinal fluid showed high protein and a yellow colour. The radiologist, T. G. Hardman, localised the level of compression by myelography; Seton Pringle and Adams McConnell (the latter Dublin's first neurosurgeon) removed the growth, which unfortunately was malignant.
The title of Synge's inaugural address as president of the Dublin Biological Society (7 November 1925) was ‘A criticism of modern medicine’. It is sufficiently peppered with aphoristic comments to leave one in no doubt that young Dr Synge from Baggot Street held his audience's attention. ‘The foundation of medical education is secondary education.’ ‘It is fatuous to spend two and a half years in the study of anatomy.’ ‘Two hemiplegias do not make a monoplegia.’ ‘Useless intellectual lumber often mars the free play of thought and reason.’ ‘We are too ready to apply unfinished biochemical research to clinical purposes.’ ‘Money and equipment facilitate discoveries; it is brains alone which make them.’ (Irish Journal of Medical Science, 6th ser. (Jan. 1926), pp 20–28). Ten years later Synge's presidential address to the Section of Medicine, Royal Society of Medicine in Ireland, divided specialists into three groups: ‘those who know something about everything and a little more about something’, the old-fashioned specalists; ‘those who know everything about something and nothing about anything else’, an increasing group; and ‘those who know something about everything and everything about something’, the most useful type. He spoke caustically of research: ‘There is a magic about the word “research.” There is a feeling that anything which can be dubbed “research” puts the author in the seats of the mighty, and makes him feel that he is one of the elect who are advancing medicine.’ He was president of the Association of Physicians of Great Britain and Ireland in 1954, in which year the Association visited Dublin.
Synge had little interest in money. He was notoriously slow to send out bills. He made no parade of his generosity, but was known to have helped hard-up students. He was opposed to the plan to replace Dublin's small hospitals with one or two large ones, and the prospect of specimens being sent from Baggot Street to the central laboratory at St James's made him shake with rage. He was something of a polymath: a knowledgeable botanist, a linguist, and well-read in German, Norwegian, and Russian. He was a member of the Pilgrims, a select group of medical professors, and enjoyed their trips abroad, which afforded opportunities to use languages he knew. He liked to talk to foreign patients in their own tongues, and after conversing with a Ukranian sailor he remarked to the house-physician: ‘That fellow speaks very bad Russian.’ Physically, he was a tall, lean, and colourless person of ascetic mien. A chain-smoker, he enjoyed a party, and was known to unbend sufficiently to sing rebel songs. Long before ‘holistic medicine’ became a buzz-phrase, Victor Synge treated the whole person, and not the disease. His effectiveness in consulting practice was reduced by the difficulty in extracting a clear-cut opinion from him— unlike a rival, of whom he said: ‘He was never in doubt but often wrong.’ Brendan O'Brien recalled Synge's dry sense of humour, and how he ‘took a delight in leading one up the garden path of discussion and tipping one into the pond of deflation at the end of it’ (O'Brien, 132).
Victor Synge left Baggot Street Hospital in 1974, after a connection with it of fifty-seven years. Like his famous uncle, he loved the Irish countryside, and had a cottage at Killakee mountain (formerly owned by Seán Keating (qv), the artist) where he lived in his retirement. He married (1919) Edith Allen, who predeceased him; he was survived by their two sons at his death on 25 February 1976. His brother J. L. Synge (qv) was a distinguished mathematician and physicist.