Travers, Robert English (1807–88), physician, scholar and librarian, was born 24 June 1807 in Dublin, son of William T. E. Travers, LLD, and Mary Travers (née Parker). Travers had little education at home and when his father died, having gambled away his assets, Travers (aged 16) was left penniless. Encouraged by a relative and supplied with the relevant books, he matriculated (1823) for TCD. After a failed love affair during his first year, from which he never fully recovered, he sought refuge in Archbishop Marsh's Library, Dublin, and eventually graduated BA (Mod.) (1832), MA (with theological testimonium) (1835), MB (1835), and MD (1874) from TCD; was admitted licentiate (1841), elected fellow (1849), censor (1851), and examiner in Greek (1860–61) at the (R)K&QCPI; and was appointed inspector of apothecary shops (1851, 1859, 1862).
He maintained only a small private practice and was appointed physician (1847–51) to the Sick Poor Institute, Meath St., where he greatly exerted himself on behalf of the poor, and admired their good humour and kindness to each other in the face of the misery and destitution in which they lived. As medical attendant (1848–55) at the South Dublin Cholera Hospital, Cork St., despite receiving a miserly income and working in the most primitive conditions, he arranged accommodation for himself at the end of a ward in order to give continuous care to his patients during the cholera epidemic. He was engaged in several disputes with the president and fellows of the K&QCP(I) in 1856, after he had published the proceedings of a meeting without permission; votes of censure and suspension were passed on him, but were later rescinded.
He published papers in medical journals and lectured on forensic medicine and hygiene (1844–88) at the Original (Ledwich) School of Medicine (where he extended the tutorial system) and was appointed professor in medical jurisprudence (1864–88) at TCD. His lectures, instructive and interesting, were delivered in such a quaint style, that they provided a fund of amusing stories for the medical fraternity. A fervent protestant, who attended TCD chapel daily, he vigorously defended the right of the Catholic University to establish a medical school, and welcomed its students in friendly rivalry. Asked what faith he had, he replied: ‘Christianus sum; I die in the faith of the three creeds’ (Brit. Med. Jn., 827).
He developed a great love of books and of Marsh's Library, where he was a constant reader, and witnessed with consternation the mismanagement of the library under successive keepers, and the appalling neglect of the building and its books. When duplicate copies from its collection, including fine examples of early printings, were auctioned (1833) to raise funds for the maintenance of the library, he compiled the sale catalogue Bibliotheca Marsiana and bought many books. As assistant keeper (1841–88) – the governors having previously commended him for catching a thief in the library (1828) – he introduced improvements, including the provision of a table for the use of readers; lessened theft by improved security; compiled a beautiful catalogue; and, in his meticulous writing, penned the Visitation accounts, which have been likened to a medieval manuscript.
In his frequent correspondence (1845–75) with his friend Thomas Jones (1810–75), librarian of Chetham's Library, Manchester, England, where over 200 of his letters are preserved (xerox copies are in Marsh's Library), he described the frustrations of working under the keeper, the Rev. Thomas Russell William Cradock (c.1805–72), whom he could not prevent from ‘displaying the most deplorable ignorance on every subject of literature’ (29 May 1857). Cradock erased original class-marks from books; moved them around the library without making corresponding changes to the catalogue; refused to display the facsimiles of precious manuscripts (which Travers had produced to prevent their further deterioration, as Cradock readily handed them out to any visitor); and refused Travers his own key, thus restricting his entry to the library.
In 1853 the governors appealed to the government for assistance for the repair of the library, and agreed to its suggestion (1856) that the books should be transferred to the proposed National Gallery of Ireland. Travers, horrified by the projected dissolution of the library, which he described as an ‘act of hostility to the church as well as one of spoliation’ (to Jones, 2 Oct. 1854), saved it with the help of Benjamin Lee Guinness (qv), who undertook its restoration (completed 1866) and built the new entrance, its inscription designed by Travers.
Having sacrificed professional advantages in the interests of the library, he had his expectations of becoming keeper cruelly dashed when after Cradock's death (1872) his candidacy was rejected by the governors. This was probably due to the scandal aroused by the famous libel case (1864) mounted by his daughter, Mary Josephine Travers (c.1826–1919), against Lady Wilde (qv) and Sir William Wilde (qv) as co-defendant. Wilde had become disenchanted after an infatuation with Mary, who in pique engaged in a campaign to annoy the Wildes, and so upset Lady Wilde that she wrote to Travers complaining of Mary's behaviour and accusing her of various intrigues. Travers replied to the letter, which Mary found and then issued a writ accusing Lady Wilde of libel and Wilde of assault, and claimed £2,000 in damages. Travers made a brief appearance in court, and his daughter won her case for libel ‘in a suit that shook society in Dublin like a thunderclap’ (McCarthy, 70), but was awarded only a farthing in damages. These events caused Travers great distress, and he was ostracised by many in the medical and literary circles in which he had been held in great esteem and regarded ‘as a phenomenon of erudition, and his extreme eccentricity of habits and costume gave strength to this impression’ (Medical Press and Circular (4 Apr. 1888), 364).
A fine scholar, he had a wide-ranging knowledge on many subjects, including bibliography, philology, antiquities, church history, printing, and music. His published works, Synopsis of lectures on forensic medicine and hygiene (1849), Vita S. Cainnici (1851), and Essay on personal identity, and its proof from physical signs (1872), give an inadequate idea of his literary activities, for he refers in his letters to Jones to articles published anonymously or under a pseudonym in several periodicals on a variety of subjects, including ‘Indian mythology’, ‘Irish crosses’, and ‘As you like it’. In his restrained and dignified letters, he comments on the Irish political, social, and literary scene and refers to his family life: to his youngest son, who had run away from school, joined the army and died of dysentery (1859) while serving in India; to his elder sons, who emigrated to Australia; and to his unhappy marriage, his wife having left him by 1864.
Travers refused the kindly offers of the new keeper, the Rev. William Maturin (qv), of a key, part of his salary, and the keeper's apartments, and always intended to resign. One of the most important book collectors in nineteenth-century Ireland, Travers had bought books to supplement Marsh's collection with the intention of bequeathing them to the library; but though he donated some of them, as a result of his disappointment of not becoming keeper he sent many to the Chetham Library, and others to the RCPI. He died 27 March 1888 at his home, 2 Phoenix Terrace, Blackrock, Co. Dublin, and was buried in an unmarked grave in Dean's Grange cemetery, Co. Dublin. His remaining books were auctioned by his daughters; his portrait, by an unknown artist, hangs in the reading room of the library, to which it was given by his daughter Isobel Travers in 1923. He married (1832) Anne Plunkett (d. 1898), a catholic; they had three sons and three daughters.