Connor (O'Connor), Bernard (c.1666–1698), royal physician, anatomist, and historian, was born into a catholic family in Co. Kerry, one of at least three children of Bernard O'Connor, possibly a member of the branch of the lords of Kerry, whose seat was at Carrigafoyle; nothing is known of his mother. He was educated by John Richards (fl.1680–c.1727), Church of Ireland dean of Ardfert, Co. Kerry. From 1686 he studied medicine, possibly at the University of Montpellier, and graduated MD (1693) from Rheims University before establishing a practice in Paris. One of the first doctors to adopt a scientific approach to the diagnosis and treatment of disease, he distinguished himself in chemistry and anatomy and published (1691) in French the first adequate description of ankylosing spondylitis, giving a precise anatomical description of the bones and the aetiology of the deformity. This was subsequently summarised in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, as ‘An extract . . . giving an account of one extraordinary humane sceleton [sic] . . .’ (xix, no. 215 (1695), 21–7)).
Asked to chaperone to Poland the two sons of the Polish chancellor, he travelled with them through Italy, Germany, and Austria; he met leading physicians, treated patients in the various English communities, and earned a reputation for his medical abilities. On the recommendation of the Venetian minister, Hieronimo Alberto de Conti, he was appointed royal physician to Jan III Sobieski, king of Poland, on his arrival in Poland (1694). He held this post for one year, in which the king gave him various severe tests, from which he always emerged successful. His medical expertise was demonstrated when, in disagreement with ten leading physicians who were treating the king's sister, the duchess of Radzevil, for ague, he correctly diagnosed an abscess on the liver (subsequently confirmed by post-mortem examination) and predicted her imminent death. The importance he gave to surgery and anatomy in medicine was at odds with the views of Polish society at the time, which held that such practical matters were unbecoming for the physician, who was viewed more as philosopher. When asked by the king, before a body of bishops and high clergy, which part of the body harbours the soul, and when does it enter and leave the body, his outspoken views were at odds with Christian philosophy. His popularity in decline, he persuaded the king to allow him to attend the king's daughter on her journey from Warsaw to Brussels (1694) to marry the elector of Bavaria. Afterwards, he travelled on to London in February 1695 and took up residence at Bow St., Covent Garden.
In London he was welcomed by Hans Sloane (qv), secretary of the Royal Society, attended the society's meetings, and presented seeds and minerals collected by him on the Continent; he also attended the meetings of the Royal College of Physicians. He lectured in medicine and physiology at Oxford and London (1695) and Cambridge (1696). Emphasising the importance of an analytical approach to medicine and the necessity for research, he communicated the latest scientific developments from the Continent. In a letter to an English notable, he gave the first recorded description of a skeleton displaying fusion of the vertebrae, or what is today called ankylosing spondylitis. He was elected FRS (1695), licentiate of the College of Physicians (1696), and member of the French Academy. Anglicising his name to Connor, he practised as a member of the Church of England and was allowed the use of the archbishop of Canterbury's library for his experiments.
He published several works, including Dissertationes medico-physicae (Oxford, 1695). A great sensation was made by his extensive sixteen-part publication Evangelium medici (London, 1697; Amsterdam, 1699), the aim of which was to explain all phenomena occurring in the human body and mind, not only in health and disease, but also in those states attributed to miraculous cures. In it, he observed that cures performed by Jesus and his apostles could be otherwise explained on natural grounds; he also proposed that reproduction could occur without direct contact between the sexes. His religion and unorthodox beliefs were questioned, and Evangelium medici was prohibited by the church. As a precaution he had obtained his licence from the College of Physicians (1696) before publication. Two letters by O'Connor defending himself from heterodoxy are held in the British Library, one to the archbishop of Canterbury. Disturbed by the controversy, in a letter written in 1698 to Dean John Richards, he resolved ‘not to meddle any more with matters of this kind, but to apply myself entirely to the practice of physick’ (Coakley, 24). One of the earliest writers to consider the connection between chemistry, physiology, and pathology, he made a valuable contribution to the development of medical thinking.
He also wrote a comprehensive History of Poland (1698); the first in the English language, it became a standard work and an important source for the history of Poland in the seventeenth century. Stricken with fever, aged 32, he made his will which included a bequest of £5 to the poor of his parish, St Giles-in-the-Fields, London, and asked the rector, William Hayley (1657–1715), to preach his funeral sermon and publish it. After receiving the sacrament from Hayley, he reputedly accepted absolution during a visit by an Irish catholic priest. He died 30 October 1698 and was buried in St Giles-in-the-Fields. His funeral sermon was delivered by Hayley, who regarded Connor as ‘a true and penitent member of the Church of England’ (Coakley, 25) and published A sermon . . . at the funeral of Bernard Connor . . . with a short account of his life and death (1699).