Stokes, Whitley (1763–1845), physician and polymath, was born in Waterford, son of Gabriel Stokes (1732–1806), DD, chancellor of the cathedral, and master of Waterford endowed school, an ex-fellow of TCD. His grandfather Gabriel Stokes (1682–1768), deputy surveyor-general, resided in Essex St., Dublin. After a primary education at his father's school in Waterford, Whitley Stokes entered TCD in 1779. Elected scholar (1781), he commenced BA in 1783, proceeding MA in 1789. Meanwhile he had faced the task of obtaining a fellowship, a distinction gained at the time by competitive examination held in public over four days, for which it was necessary to have attained the highest standard possible in mathematics, logic, natural and moral philosophy, chronology, history, and the classical languages. Stokes had wide interests, and prepared himself so assiduously that he became physically weak and emaciated; he had to be carried into the examination hall in 1788, but he was rewarded with success. At his own request, though yet lacking a medical degree, he was given the medical fellowship in 1789, being designated ‘medicus’.
Stokes was elected to the Society of the United Irishmen of Dublin at its first meeting (9 November 1791), one of eighteen persons balloted for in their absence. Subsequently, with Thomas Russell (qv) and Wolfe Tone (qv), with whom he was friendly, Stokes opposed the proposed solemn declaration or test as too rhetorical, argumentative, and indeterminate. In July 1792 he accompanied Tone on a visit to Belfast where Tone introduced him to Dr James MacDonnell (qv). Stokes's official membership of the United Irishmen was brief, but he did not break fully with the radicals, and when a committee was appointed (January 1793) to draw up a scheme of parliamentary reform, he submitted a plan. He ended his official connection with the Dublin Society long before its suppression in 1794, but that he continued to have something more than a sympathetic interest is confirmed by his letters to Thomas Russell, whom he told (5 March 1796) that his brother Gabriel, a lawyer, ‘is likely to have about two guineas for Tone but not more at present.’ And on 12 April 1796 he requested: ‘Do send me some of the letters you get from Tone’. In 1797 he treated Russell when he became seriously ill during his imprisonment in Newgate, Dublin.
On 22 June 1793, having laid before the college board certificates of his attendance on the several professors of medicine, and a thesis in Latin on ‘Respiration’, Stokes was awarded the degrees MB and MD at the summer commencements. He was granted £50 by the board ‘for the purpose of prosecuting his studies in Edinburgh’, and proceeded to Scotland to study. His first ventures as a medical practitioner took him into Dublin's slums, where he studied his patients' environments as intently as their ailments, finding, for example, that certain families rented a small room for a few guineas a year, sub-letting to others who paid them sixpence-halfpenny per week to lay down a bed of straw in a corner.
Not confining himself to medical practice, Stokes, with the assurance of a polymath, was Donegall lecturer in mathematics in 1795, and was admitted licentiate of the College of Physicians without examination. In 1798 he was appointed king's professor of the practice of medicine, and held the chair until 1811. His non-medical publications are mentioned here together. A reply to Mr Paine's Age of Reason addressed to the Students of Trinity College, Dublin (1795) was followed by Projects for re-establishing the internal peace and tranquillity of Ireland (1799) and Observations on the necessity of publishing the Scriptures in the Irish language (1808). He bore the expense of providing an English–Irish dictionary (1814), and in Observations on the population and resources of Ireland (1821) he charged Robert Malthus with errors. His association with the United Irishmen led to his examination when a visitation was held in TCD in 1798, and though palpably innocent of any unlawful association he was admonished by Lord Clare (qv), who directed that his promotion to a senior fellowship should be delayed. Wolfe Tone, on the other hand, said he looked on Whitley Stokes as the very best man he had ever known.
Stokes received permission on 21 June 1806 to give a course on natural history in TCD, provided that he did not disturb his students' routine duties. The lectures, delivered in the Law School at 2 p.m., were continued for several years. He was commissioned by the board in 1810 to superintend the mines discovered on the college estates. This undertaking lasted for seven years, and Stokes shared in the profits. He also accepted the post of curator of the museum.
The principal medical works of Whitley Stokes are ‘On an eruptive disease of children’, published in the Dublin Medical and Physical Essays (1808), and Observations on contagion (1818). He joined the staff of the Meath Hospital on 14 December 1818. His services were readily available to the sick poor, and he worked valiantly during two typhus epidemics. He was elected to the chair of medicine at the RCSI on 15 June 1819. Stokes withdrew from the Meath Hospital in 1826 to facilitate the appointment there of his son, William, but the lack of a hospital appointment was to affect the career of Stokes père adversely by reducing the size of his class at the RCSI and compelling him to resign (1828). His eminence was such, however, that when the position of regius professor of physic in TCD became vacant he was appointed to the chair (13 November 1830), to resign ten years later, well pleased that his successor was to be his son William (qv), who by then was Dublin's leading physician. Early in 1840, concerned by his father's declining health, William Stokes commissioned Charles Grey (1808?–1892) to paint him secretly, drawing him first while at prayer in the chapel of his nonconformist sect, the Walkerites. The prognosis was unduly pessimistic: Whitley Stokes lived into his 83rd year. He died 13 April 1845 at 16 Harcourt St., and was interred in a family tomb at Taney church, Dundrum, Co. Dublin.
He married (1796) Mary Anne (d. 1844), daughter of John Picknell, J.P. and landowner, of Loughgall, Co. Armagh, and Seatown House, Swords, Co. Dublin. Stokes lived at 16 Harcourt St.; he and his wife had ten children of whom two, William and Gabriel, were to join their father's profession. He had a country house at Ballinteer, near Dundrum, where, in view of his interest in agriculture, it seems likely that he farmed.