Parsons, Alfred Robert (1864–1952), physician, was born 23 September 1864 in Victoria Place, Athlone, son of John Parsons, bootmaker, and Mary Parsons (née Leney). He was the second of seven children; he had three brothers (William, b. 1862; George Thomas, b. 1868; and Charles Frederick) and three sisters (Edith Ann, b. 1868; Emma Charlotte, b. 1870; and Violet Elsie, d. 30 January 1958). Educated at the Ranelagh School, Athlone (an endowed school), and then at Wesley College, Dublin, he entered TCD, where he obtained a BA in experimental science (1886) and a degree in medicine (1888). Having completed his studies, he won a travelling medical scholarship (1889), which enabled him to study for a few months at hospitals in Berlin, Heidelberg, and Vienna. On his return to Dublin, he was appointed house surgeon (1890) at Sir Patrick Dun's Hospital, Dublin, and then assistant physician (1892–94). He became a licentiate of the RCPI (1892) and soon afterwards a full member (1893). While working at Sir Patrick Dun's, he obtained a diploma in public health from TCD (1893) and was elected a fellow of the Royal Academy of Medicine in Ireland (1893). In 1894 he was made a fellow of the RCPI and appointed visiting physician to the Royal City of Dublin Hospital, Baggot Street, where he worked for the rest of his life, distinguishing himself as a gifted teacher; he was honorary secretary of the hospital (1912–52). He graduated MD from TCD in 1897.
During the first world war Parsons was lieutenant colonel of the RAMC no. 83 general hospital in France and visiting physician to Dublin Castle hospital. An active participant in many organisations throughout his career, he was vice-president of the RCPI (1919); president of the Royal Academy of Medicine (1936–9) and president of the medical section; examiner in medicine to the RAMC College, London; the lord chief justice's 'medical visitor in lunacy' in Ireland; examiner in medicine at the RCPI; external examiner in clinical and state medicine at TCD; visiting physician, then consulting physician, to Newcastle sanatorium, Co. Wicklow; and physician to Wesley College and the Masonic Boys’ School. A long-serving member of the Biological Club of TCD, he was the vice-president of its successor, the Biological Association, and regularly attended their meetings.
It is for his fifty-six years of service as physician and teacher at the Royal City of Dublin Hospital that Parsons is best remembered. Known as ‘Alfie’ to his many students, he was regarded as the greatest bedside teacher of medicine that the Dublin school ever produced. Medical students from all over Dublin attended his clinics; he had an energy and flair for teaching and a talent for impressing facts on a student's memory so that they were not forgotten. One student, Keith Shaw, recalled that he conducted his bedside clinics ‘with a dramatic panache worthy of the Abbey Theatre’ (Coakley, 41). He encouraged his students to develop their skills of observation of physical signs in order to improve their diagnoses, and though he frequently bombarded them with antiquated Latin terminology, he kept up-to-date with medical developments. An astute clinician, he was one of the first doctors to advocate early operation for patients with perforated peptic ulcers. He was also much interested in the laboratory aspects of medicine and was fascinated by the diagnostic potential of urine testing. Once he diagnosed a patient in his late sixties with a rare condition (alkaptonuria) and permitted the patient to drink in a nearby pub each evening so as to prolong his illness, thereby keeping him in hospital for the purpose of illustrating the condition to students.
A man of strong convictions, he was a teetotaller throughout his life and took a cold bath every morning, even in the depths of winter. He refused to allow himself to be nominated for the presidency of the RCPI as he was not willing to preside at banquets where alcohol was consumed. Deeply religious, he regularly attended morning and evening services at the Centenary methodist church at St Stephen's Green, Dublin. After a short illness, he died 24 January 1952, at his home, 1 Waterloo Road, Dublin, aged eighty-seven. He had conducted his last clinic only a week before. The Alfred Parsons travelling prize for medical students, founded in 1953 in his memory, was continued from 1992 as part of the Royal City of Dublin postgraduate travelling prize, awarded by TCD.