Cheyne, John

John Cheyne (1777-1836)

A founder of the Irish School of Medicine

John Cheyne was Scottish. He assisted his father’s practice in Edinburgh at age 15. In 1795, he qualified from Edinburgh University, and joined the Royal Artillery as assistant surgeon. He was promoted to surgeon and went to Ireland with the Horse Artillery Brigade in 1797. He was involved in various actions against the 1798 rebellion, including the massacre at Vinegar Hill in Wexford.

He sought further training and returned to Scotland, and trained under Sir Charles Bell who taught him the lifetime values of dissection and study. In 1808 he returned to Ireland and married the daughter of a vicar in Antrim.

In Dublin he found that physicians treated symptomatically, but did not consider the background pathology of conditions as did surgeons. In 1811 he received his License from the College of Physicians, and became a physician to the Meath Hospital. In 1813 he became the first Professor of Medicine to the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, which he held for six years.

In 1815 he became physician to the Richmond Hospital and found the intensity of the work so great that he resigned his Professorship and his post in the Meath Hospital. He had a particular interest in the management of infectious fevers. He trained his fever nurses to observe and record cases in detail. He also had a successful private practice.

He launched the Dublin Hospital Reports which set the standards for scientific reporting. His work and training with the fever nurses was the first example of Nurse Education in these islands.

He wrote many papers and books especially in the field of children’s diseases, and hydrocephalus.   In 1812 he wrote his classic work on apoplexy, in which he described the respiratory pattern in strokes, varying from no breaths for some seconds, increasing to intense rapid stertorous breathing. This pattern was also noted by Stokes in 1846, in which he referred to Cheyne’s description.This type of breathing is still referred to as Cheyne-Stokes respiration.

Cheyne lived in Ely Place and had sixteen children. In later life, from 1825 he became depressed and increasingly sensitive to the stresses of work. He retired to Sherrington in Buckinghamshire, England in 1831, despite appeals from his colleagues to continue his excellent work and research in Ireland.

He died in 1836, leaving very explicit instructions for a low-key funeral with no orations. It is sad to see such a consummate professional ending his life with such a sense of depression and worthlessness. Graves and Stokes testified to how highly esteemed and influential he was to the initial phase of the Irish School of Medicine.


Coakley, D. 1997 Irish Masters of Medicine, Town House

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