Perceval, Robert (1756–1839), physician, chemist, traveller, and founding member of the RIA, was born 30 September 1756 in Dublin, third and youngest son of William Perceval, barrister, and his second wife, Elizabeth Perceval (née Ward; d. 30 November 1770) of Lisbane, Strangford Lough, Co. Down. He was descended from Richard Perceval (qv) of Somerset, who came to Ireland on being appointed register of the court of wards (1616), and was also related to the earls of Egmont. His grandfather was the Very Rev. William Perceval (1671–1734), archdeacon of Cashel and dean of Emly. He was educated at Dr Darby's school in Ballygall, Finglas, Co. Dublin, and entered TCD on 27 April 1772; he may also have received some medical instruction from the RCPI. In 1777 he graduated BA and travelled to Edinburgh in 1778 to study medicine, graduating MD (1780). During his time at Edinburgh he attended the lectures of Dr Joseph Black (qv), the renowned lecturer of chemistry, and it is likely that his interest in chemistry dates from this period.
In June 1780 he embarked upon a grand tour of Europe and, deciding to concentrate on visiting colleges and places of scientific interest, avoided the social round that most travellers of the period made. He began his tour in Holland, where he visited the college at Leiden, before travelling to Paris, where he spent the winter of 1780–81. While in Paris he visited hospital clinics and made the acquaintance of Le Roy, a noted physician. He also attended the lectures of Antoine Fourcroy, who was later appointed professor of chemistry at the École Royale Veterinaire at Alfort. In April 1781 Perceval left Paris and travelled on foot to Chalon, a distance of 200 miles (320 km), and then explored the volcanic areas around Lyons. He visited the mines of the comte de Buffon and went to Dijon to meet the noted chemists de Virly and Louis Bernard Guyton de Morveau. Exposed to the theories of the leading French chemists, he remained in contact with them and later arranged for many of them to become members of the RIA. He spent the summer and autumn of 1781 in Switzerland and, after further studies, returned to London in November.
In late 1782 he returned to Dublin, and in 1783 was admitted as a licentiate and fellow of the RCPI and appointed as the first professor of chemistry at TCD (1783–1808). A member of the Medico-Philosophical Society, he became one of the founding members of the RIA in 1785 and was its first secretary. In the same year, he was one of the founders of the Dublin General Dispensary in Temple Bar. In 1786 he was appointed as inspector of apothecaries and, due to the rigorous way in which he examined candidates, he became an unpopular figure with some members of the Guild of Apothecaries. He graduated MB and MD (TCD) in 1793.
He was convinced that the RCPI needed to introduce a series of clinical lectures, and lobbied government for the funds to build a new clinical hospital which would be administered by the college. The school of physic act of 1791 provided the RCPI with £1,000 from the estate of Sir Patrick Dun, and the college acquired premises on Blind Quay (Essex Quay), opening Sir Patrick Dun's Hospital in 1793. Not satisfied with this outcome, he continued to lobby government for funds for a new, purpose-built, clinical hospital, and in April 1799 a committee of the Irish house of lords was appointed to inquire into the administration of Sir Patrick Dun's estate. He was elected president of Sir Patrick Dun's Hospital in November 1799. The report of the lords committee resulted in the school of physic act of 1800, which dictated that funds from the Dun estate be used to build a new clinical hospital. (In 1808 Sir Patrick Dun's Hospital moved to new premises in Grand Canal St.) This second act, however, removed the Dun estate from the administration of the RCPI, and Perceval was censured by the fellows of the college. He was elected president of the RCPI in November 1799, but resigned in August 1800 as a clause of the second school of physic act forbade any TCD professor from holding a fellowship of the RCPI. He was made an honorary fellow of the RCPI in October 1800.
A noted philanthropist, he sat on a committee in 1805 investigating the spread of fever and, concerned about prison reform, became an active member of the Prison Discipline Society. This society later merged with the Howard Society, a society dedicated to prison reform, and Perceval became known as the ‘Irish Howard’. He was also a governor of Dr Steevens' Hospital. In March 1819 he was appointed physician general to the forces in Ireland but, in failing health, resigned from the office a year later. During the last years of his life he suffered intense pain from an unusual illness that began with a swelling of the hands and ended with swellings in both hip joints. In 1821, while at a levee in Dublin Castle in honour of George IV, he tried to approach the king without the aid of a crutch. Noting his distress, the king held out his arm to give him support. He died 3 March 1839 and, as he had instructed his family to offer his remains to the Pathological Society, both hip joints were removed and sent for preservation in the Medical School Museum at TCD. In 1844 a fine oil portrait, by William Gillard, was presented to the RCPI by Dr Charles Philips Croker.
Perceval's MD thesis, Tentamen physiologicum inaugurale de corde, was published in Edinburgh in 1780. All his scientific papers were published in Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy. These were ‘Chemical communications and inquiries’ (1790), ‘Account of a chamber furnace’ (1790), ‘On the solution of lead by lime’ (1793), and ‘An account of some chalybeate preparations’ (1810). He also published An account of the bequest of Sir Patrick Dun (1804) and An essay to establish the divinity of Christ (1821). There is a large collection of his letters in PRONI. There are further collections in the Bibliothèque Publique, Dijon, and the Bibliothèque Publique et Universitaire, Geneva.
He married (May 1785) Anne, eldest daughter of John Brereton of Rathgilbert and Ballyadams, Queen's Co. (Laois). They had one child.