Whitla, Sir William, MP

One of Ulster's most distinguished men of medicine, born on 15 September 1851 into a Methodist family in Monaghan. At 15 he was articled to his brother James, a high street pharmacist. After studying pharmacy and then medicine at Queen's University, Belfast, he worked at Belfast General Hospital and St. Thomas's Hospital, London, where he met his wife Ada, a friend of Florence Nightingale and a Salvationist. After a period in private practice in Belfast, in 1890 he was called to the chair of pharmacology at Queen's University. He was President of the BMA when it met in Belfast in 1890. His medical works, particularly his Elements of Pharmacy (1882) andDictionary of Medical Treatment (1892), were in wide demand and translated into many languages. Honoured by many universities, he was knighted in 1902. He was pro-Chancellor of QUB, represented the university in Parliament 1918-1923, and was appointed physician to King George V. In retirement he took up an longstanding interest in biblical studies. He suffered a stroke in 1929 and died in Belfast on 11 December 1933, leaving endowments to Methodist College, Belfast, Queen's University and the Ulster Medical Society. His Belfast home, Lennoxvale, was left to Queen's University as a residence for the Vice-Chancellor. The Sir William Whitla Hall was named in his honour in 1949.


'I got to know more intimately two members of the congregation [at University Road] who were outstanding in the medical profession, Sir William Whitla and Dr. James A. Lindsay. Both were men of ability, but as different as men could be. Physically, Whitla was big and Lindsay small. In Theology, Whitla was a Fundamentalist, Lindsay a Modernist... Sir William seemed to me to suffer from some kind of mental dichotomy, for he would stoutly maintain that Moses wrote the Pentateuch and Daniel the "Book of Daniel", and yet deny that Shakespeare wrote any of the plays attributed to him. "Bacon," he said, "was the author," a statement easy to make but not so easy to support. One day on visiting Sir William I found him in a state of exasperation with Dean Farrar's views on the Book of Daniel. The thought occurred to me to ask him to give an address on the subject at our annual Home Missionary Meeting, which he consented to do. Afterwards he rang me up to say that one night would not be enough, and the result was a whole series of lectures on Wednesday evenings. There was a large attendance on each occasion. The lectures were afterwards published under the title Newton's Daniel and the Apocalypse, for the Doctor was determined to bind uyp with his own addresses Sir Isaac's old work, to which no one gives any attention today. The reviewers were not well disposed to the volume, and on the whole it would have been better had Isaac kept to his mathematics and William to his drugs.'

F.E. Harte, The Road I have Travelled(Belfast, n.d., pp.148-9)

  • Times, 12 December 1933
  • Irish Christian Advocate, 5 Jan 1934
  • David Livingstone, 'Science, Religion and the Geography of Reading...' in British Journal for the History of Science, vol.36 (2003)
  • Oxford DNB