Stokes, William

William Stokes (1804-1878)


William Stokes was born in Dublin, son of a physician in the Meath hospital and Professor in TCD. He was educated privately at home by his father’s friend John Walker, a former TCD Fellow who disagreed with the Established Church beliefs of the day.

In 1822, Stokes studied anatomy in the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland (RCSI), went to Glasgow to study chemistry, and then studied medicine in Edinburgh. Even while a student, he published a 260-page book on uses of the stethoscope, recently invented by Laennec.  

He received his MD in 1825, and joined Robert Graves in the Meath Hospital in Dublin. They developed a great friendship, and between them helped to make the Meath one of the most famous teaching hospitals of the time, revolutionising the practice of medicine. Stokes was an able lecturer and original researcher. His lectures were published internationally. He deplored over-specialism, and valued a broad education.  

Because of his private education, the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland (RCPI) at first could not make him a Fellow under its rules, as he had not been to TCD, Cambridge, or Oxford.   TCD granted him an Honorary MD to salvage matters.

Stokes nearly died of one of the typhus fever epidemics in Dublin, and showed great empathy for those suffering in the Famine.   He set up a charity for support of bereaved medical families.

He initially studied respiratory disease and published on this in 1837.   He then developed his interest in Cardiology, describing fainting from cardiac conditions – Stokes - Adams syncope - in several papers. He published Diseases of the Heart and Aorta in 1854, which was translated into several languages. This stressed that many heart murmurs were benign, described pericarditis, and aortic sclerosis.

In 1845, he became Professor of Medicine in TCD, and also RCPI President. He also founded a Course in Social and Preventive Medicine, which offered the first Diploma in this field. He stated that there should be more involvement of the State in dealing with disease on a large scale.

His house in Merrion Square was the centre for many cultural interests. Stokes went on archaeological expeditions with his friends Petrie, Ferguson, Wilde and the Earl of Dunraven; and often helped locals on these trips with their medical problems.

He was a committed family man, and romped happily with his children, who were also to become successful in their fields – Celtic Studies, Antiquities, and Medicine. A story is told of Stokes becoming so abstracted while considering a diagnosis that the patient became extremely worried, but Stokes was merely musing that his son would be a great surgeon!

In 1878, he died in Howth after suffering injury. His statue is in the RCPI hall.


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

O’Brien, E. (1978)   William Stokes 1804-78.   BMJ, 2, 749-50.

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