Widdess, John (‘Jack’) David Henry (1906–82), medical historian, librarian, and biologist, was born 1 August 1906 in Limerick, son of Matthew Widdess, pharmaceutical chemist, and Emily Widdess (née Irwin). He was educated at Wesley College, Dublin. He won prizes, was admitted licentiate (1931) RCP&SI, and subsequently entered TCD, where he graduated BA (Mod.) in natural science (1938), MA (1941), and Litt.D. (1964) (Dubl.).
He was appointed assistant (1931–8) in the physiology department, RCSI; clinical biochemist (1932–73) and assistant pathologist (1938–73) at the Richmond (later St Lawrence's) Hospital; and pathologist and biochemist (1948–51) at the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin. His career flourished in the RCSI, and he was appointed (1938) lecturer in biology, and was subsequently professor of biology (1960–73); he published articles in professional journals and, though an indifferent lecturer, gave memorable practical demonstrations. His greatest contribution to the medical school was through promoting intellectual activity, awakening in his students an appreciation of the wealth of their heritage, and providing a cultural forum for them as co-founder of the revived Biological Society (1931). Elected its president (1941), in his inaugural address he spoke on ‘Some aspects of pituitary physiology’, was subsequently elected permanent vice-president, never missed an inaugural meeting, and received a standing ovation on his appearance at the fiftieth anniversary. He encouraged all intellectual and artistic activity and was elected president of the Literary and Dramatic Society (1967) and of the Association of Graduates (1954).
An avid reader and bibliophile, he was delighted with his appointment as librarian of the college (1940–73), and in the words of W. M. Doolin (qv) ‘made of the library, too long neglected . . . a living tool’ (Widdess, ‘Foreword’) and a centre for medical history. He reorganised the library, introduced a card catalogue, and rearranged its collection of more than 30,000 books according to the Dewey decimal system. He mined its treasures, particularly the beautifully preserved surgical manuscripts of John Arderne (1307–c.1390), known as the Lentaigne MSS; he made a census of Arderne's surviving MSS and wrote ‘Practica magistri Johannis Arderne’ (Ir. Jn. Med. Sc., ccvii (Mar. 1943), 77–81). Fascinating exhibitions were arranged, including those in association with the bicentenary of the Rotunda Hospital (1947), the exhibition on the history of Irish surgery for the Congress of the International Society of Surgery (1961), and the Franco–Irish exhibition (1971). He was also appointed hon. librarian of the Worth library (1965) in Dr Steevens' Hospital, and of the RCPI (1968), where he began the classification and restoration of its valuable collection, and was librarian of the Myles library (1971) in St Lawrence's Hospital.
Recognised as Ireland's foremost medical historian, he made invaluable contributions to medical history: ‘his style was lively and entertaining and, without compromising historical accuracy, was able to blend the humour and sadness of history with a subtlety that was most attractive’ (Eoin O'Brien, Ir. Med. Jn., lxxv (1982), 263). He published The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and its medical school 1784–1984 (1st ed. 1949, 3rd ed. 1984), A history of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland 1654–1963 (1963), and The Richmond, Whitworth & Hardwicke Hospitals. St Lawrence's Dublin 1772–1972 (), and edited The Charitable Infirmary, Jervis Street, Dublin, 1718–1968 (1968). He wrote valuable papers, including an index (Ir. Jn. Med. Sc. (1955, 1960)) to the biographical notices and papers on the history of medicine published in the Irish Journal of Medical Science from 1916 to 1959). A selection of his articles are listed in Alan Eager, A guide to Irish bibliographical material (1980).
Appointed editor (1968) of the erratically published Journal of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, he improved its format, attracted new contributors, and in 1971 renamed it the Journal of the Irish Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons, which was then published quarterly. A member of the library associations of Ireland and of Great Britain, he addressed many learned bodies and was invited in 1970 to tour America lecturing on Irish medical history.
Tall, magisterial, and modest, with a mischievous sense of humour, he was respected for his integrity and scholarship, and was honoured on his retirement (1973) for his contribution to medical history by a festschrift, Essays in honour of J. D. H. Widdess (1978) edited by Eoin O'Brien. His record as a biologist was marked by an appreciation and a special issue of Biosciences Communications (1977). Elected to hon. fellowship of RCPI (1968) and RCSI (1975) and a recipient of the Abraham Colles (qv) medal (1973), he was a fellow of the Royal Academy of Medicine in Ireland and of the Royal Microscopical Society, and member (1964) and fellow (1976) of the Royal College of Pathologists.
On his retirement to Puint na Teint, in Sneem, Co. Kerry, he became a member of the Kerry Archaeological and Historical Society and the local representative for An Taisce, and was an angler, skilled photographer, and artist. Imbued with knowledge and respect for the varied traditions of the Christian faith, he was a member of the synod of the Church of Ireland in the diocese of Ardfert and Aghadoe. He took a keen interest in the parishes of Kerry, loved old churches and music, and as a boy had learned to play the organ in St Mary's cathedral, Limerick. Disabled from arthritis, he planned to return to Dublin to facilitate his scholarly activities, but died 2 May 1982 in St Michael's Hospital, Dún Laoghaire, Co. Dublin, and was buried in Dean's Grange cemetery, Co. Dublin. He married (20 July 1935) Gladys Michael; they had three sons and two daughters.