Dr. Thomas Arthur (1593-1674)


Thomas Arthur was one of the most eminent doctors of his time and below is the story of the life of this amazing member of the Arthur family.


Thomas Arthur was a member of an eminent Limerick family the Arthur’s and was the son of William Arthur a wealthy merchant and Anastasia Rice. William Arthur died in 1620 and it seems likely that his wife Anastasia Rice donated a chalice to the Franciscan Church in Limerick in her maiden name  after the death of her husband. Maurice Lenihan makes the point that as the practice of medicine was not prohibited by the penal laws, as most other professions were, Catholics were often in the first rank of physicians and surgeons. However, they were not allowed at this time to study physic here in Ireland so Thomas Arthur studied arts in Bordeaux, and medicine in Paris. He took his doctorate in Rheims. Subsequently he returned to Limerick, commencing practice in 1619.


He was a meticulous note-keeper, recording all kinds of autobiographical details, family genealogy, and various interesting facts relating to life in the city of Limerick. He kept strict accounts and noted all financial details of his practice and his dealings in money and property. This manuscript is known as the Arthur Manuscript. It is written partly in English, partly in what Lenihan termed “contracted Latin”. It is quoted on many occasions, and at length in Lenihan’s History of Limerick. Lenihan originally owned the manuscript, until falling on hard times when he sold it to the British Museum.


The first case recorded concerns a gentleman with venereal disease. This does not cause any great difficulty in translation. “Charolus Bourk, a gonorrhea simplici liberatus, dedit mihi pro-honorario, 20th May 1619, £2”. It is interesting that Widdess quotes a French visitor, Le Gouze, who noted, “there are a large number of profligate women in the city, which I would not have expected on account of the climate”!


Shortly afterwards, Thomas relieved a lady of breathlessness and cured the son of a Peter Stacpole from an obstructive liver problem. He relieved a certain Nicholas Cromwell from pleurisy. He then had a major diagnostic triumph, which boosted his practice considerably. A lady named Anna Gould, who was aged over 50 at the time, and living with her second husband, consulted him. She had always been barren. She consulted Arthur for abdominal swelling and discomfort. Arthur says that from the usual signs of pregnancy he predicted that she was expecting a child. However, “some senior doctors in whom she had more faith” disagreed with him and prescribed an offensive mercuric compound, which eventually killed her in the eighth month of pregnancy. Arthur relates that he dissected the dead lady’s uterus and extracted a female child to prove his assertion. He records that this case brought him “no minima laudem”.


Naturally his name spread, and by the end of the year he had treated several of Limerick’s most distinguished citizens including Donagh O’Brien, the 4th Earl of Thomond, and George Sexton, who owned extensive estates in the neighborhood. He actually accompanied Donagh O’Brien on a trip to Dublin and collected a large fee.


Early in 1620 comes an entry: “The amount of my fees for this year past is £74. 2s 8d, for which, and other gifts conferred upon me, unworthy, I return boundless thanks to the Almighty God who had deigned to bless the beginnings of my medical practice”. Encouraged by his success, he embarked on the building of a large stone house in Mungret Street, which took a considerable time to complete. Clearly he began to achieve a national as well as a local name in the field of medicine, and from then on he traveled widely and his practice included a large number of titled persons.


On 3 May 1620 he was called to Dublin to treat a gentleman for gonorrhea, who being “thoroughly cured, gave me a horse the value of £8, and £5 in gold”. Lady Chichester, Sir Randall McSaurley, and the Protestant Bishop of Killaloe are also listed as needing his services. Incidentally, he always referred to by a Protestant bishop as a “Pseudo Episcobus”.


In November 1620 he records in the MS that he attended a “Thadeaus Oderleo qui asumpta infusione emetica vitri antimony tineam trigeinta pedas longa per alva deiecit quibus dudu cruciabutur (Thomas Derleo, to whom I gave a strong emetic dose of antimony, passed a worm 30ft long which had crucified him for some time)”. For this he received a fee of £1.


The turning point of his career occurred in March 1625, when he was asked to go to Drogheda to see Archbishop James Usher, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland (Pseudo Primatus). The era was not known for ecumenism, and Usher, in public at any rate, was a violent opponent of Catholicism. However, as J. B. Lyons has said, “the most rigid sectarian barrier can be breached by an effective therapist” (Brief Lives of Irish Doctors, p. 32). Still it is a remarkable tribute to Thomas’ reputation.


The ensuing drama was a complete triumph for the Limerick doctor, and it is a superb tale.

Usher had developed a serious illness in England and had been treated by many doctors including the Royal physicians at very great expense. Now we will let Thomas himself carry on the story: Having heard his statement and weighed the options of the eminent physicians, I seriously studied the symptoms, which arose throughout the whole history of the disease. From these I thought I had explained the cause of this doubtful disease which every day grew worse, and which had hitherto escaped the observation of several eminent men. When I was sensible I had perfectly ascertained, after making an experiment to try my conjecture, I confidently undertook his cure; nor did my hopes deceive me. The cure of this disease, which baffled the physicians of England, Royal and most eminent, made me famous and acceptable among the English to whom I had been hateful.


As a result of this spectacular success he was entertained by the Viceroy, Lord Falkland, who in Thomas’ words “enquired the history of the whole disease and in what points the Royal doctors had been mistaken. He then appointed me physician both to himself and to his nearest and dearest”. Thus Thomas Arthur was appointed doctor to the vice regal household.


About 1630 Thomas felt it would be more profitable for him to move to Dublin, where he stayed for about 10 or 11 years. His practice flourished in the capital and his fee book contained notes on members of the Usher family - Sir James Weir, Thomas Luttrel of Luttrelstown, the Countess of Fingal and other notables. In 1633 he was called to see Sir Basil Brooke, a grim attendance which merits recording: Sir Basil Brooke of Ulster was afflicted with a severe blockage of the neck of his bladder by a thick fluid; some unwise doctor had prescribed cantharides, which putrid prescription had caused a most painful and malignant inflammation of the neck of his bladder and destroyed the whole penile duct. He had a fever and intolerable pain. I saw him on 24 July and gave a prognosis of impending death. I urged him to put his finances in order and attend to his spiritual affairs, and left him.


By 1640 the political climate had changed. Falkland, who had appointed Arthur as doctor to his own household, followed a policy of “connived indulgence” with regard to the penal laws. Wentworth, whom Thomas described as “a grim visaged satan”, then replaced him. Even though it meant a reduction of income he felt he would be safer in Limerick, and he returned there to continue practice.


However, in 1651 the parliamentary forces under Ireton besieged Limerick. After the city fell Thomas was probably imprisoned briefly, and lost all his properties. He bitterly recalls that he had to pay a fine of £172. His lands and properties were also seized, but were returned after the restoration. He partly offset this reduction of his assets by treating some British officers who had been bombarding him a short time previously, and his journal records attendances to Colonel Ingoldsby, Major Maye and other military worthies. Among those successfully treated by Thomas after the capitulation of Limerick was Dr. Credanus, who was severely injured by a shell during the siege, and Dominick Fitz David Rice, one of the outstanding defenders of the city who had to have a leg amputated. These were two special cases which illustrate Thomas’ surgical skills.


After the Cromwellian victory, about two dozen people were executed, including six army personnel, four priests and the Bishops of Limerick and Emily. One doctor, a Dr Higgins, was on this list and Thomas may have been fortunate to escape with his life. Subsequently, he continued to practice until 1666 and died in 1675.


Here is a copy of the will of Thomas Arthur.






Thomas Arthur Doctor of Physic. I appoint my wife Christian Arthur sole executrix. I bequeath unto said wife all my lands of Tullaghedy containing two ploughs in Ormond (a plough was the amount of land a man with a horse and plough could plough in one day) in the county of Tipperary and the lands of Mayne Co. Galway and all other lands in said county of Galway now in lease to Henry Davis and enjoyed by him and his assigns by virtue thereof for several years past. To hold the same to said Christian for and during her life and after her decease to her admons or executors for the space of two years immediately following her death the lands in Tipperary and Galway I have already by deed executed conveyed to the use of said Christian for he jointure during her life. I also bequeath and devise to my wife Christian Arthur all the benefit and advantage, which I have or may expect in any lots tenements and heredits by virtue of any clause or provision to Act of Settlement or Explanation in my behalf as nominee, or otherwise the same to be held by said Christian during her life.



To brother Richard Arthur £6 annually. I remit and release to my son in law Nicholas Comyn whatever debts are due to me by him by bond or otherwise. I further bequeath to my daughter Christian wife of said Nicholas the moiety of Newtown in Co. Carlow and debt and mortgage thereof due from the Duke of Ormond.  Whereas I owed unto my son in law Daniel Arthur the sum of £100, which remained of my daughter Anastace Arthur his wife’s portion to which sum I paid by order for said Daniel unto John Arthur of Dublin deceased my son in law and took his bond for the same I do hereby appoint my executors to deliver said bond to said Daniel Arthur. To grandchildren the younger Ellinor Arthur and Anastace Arthur children of said Daniel Arthur my son and of my daughter Anastace deed the other moiety of said debt and mortgage of Newtown due from the Duke of Ormond to my wife all other goods and chattels.


Signed: Thomas Arthur 31 December 1674.


Hen. Lynch J Fitzgerald, Matthew Nangle, William James Der Donnelly, Francis Lange.




My further will is that William Arthur Fitz John of Dublin in case he be living be my heir and that after the death of my wife and executrix and after the time before my last will limited to hold and enjoy all of my state of inheritance within this kingdom of Ireland to him the said William Arthur and the heirs male of his body and for want of such heirs said estate of inheritance shall descend to my grandson Thomas Arthur Fitz John and his heirs male and for want of such heirs to my grandson Daniel Arthur Fitz Daniel son to my daughter Anastace Arthur deed and his heirs male and for want of such heirs.


To Thomas Arthur of Limerick doctor of Physic and his heirs male and for want of such heirs my said estate of Inheritance shall descend and come to the right heirs of me the said Thomas Arthur Fitz William and their heirs forever and do declare for the several injuries done unto me by my son John Arthur and Demphna his wife and her disrespect unto me that I was intended not to transfer any of my estate upon their issue but by the earnest entreaty of my now wife Christian I have been induced to make their provision for them I will that my will be recommended as my last will and request to favor and kindness of the Rt. Honorable the Countess of Mount Alexander doubting not but she will answer her in all her just demands and reasonable desires.


Dated 2nd. January 1674.

Proved 27th. January 1674 by Christian Arthur widow and sole executrix.


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