Lives of the fellows

William Porter (Sir) Macarthur

b.11 Mar 1884 d.30 July 1964
DSO(1916) OBE(1919) CB(1938) KCB(1939) MB BCh BAO RUI(1908) DPH Oxon(1910) MD Belf(1911) DTM&H Cantab(1920) Hon DSc Belf(1935) Hon DSc Oxon(1949) MRCPI(1911) FRCPI(1913) *FRCP(1937)

William Porter MacArthur was a man of many gifts and wide knowledge, a scholar in history and literature, a practical teacher, and an efficient but rather unwilling administrator. He was born at Belmont, near Belfast, the son of J. P. MacArthur and his wife, Margaret, daughter of William Baird, of Donemara. Following a year in house posts at the Royal Victoria Hospital he joined the R.A.M.C. Service from 1911 to 1914 as a specialist sanitary officer in Mauritius laid the foundations of his life interest in tropical medicine. On his return from France in 1918 he devoted three years to the establishment of the Army School of Hygiene. He was now the obvious choice to be professor of tropical medicine at the Royal Army Medical College from 1922 to 1929, and again from 1932 to 1934. In the interval he was appointed consulting physician to the Army, deputy to the director-general of medical services, and commandant of the College. This meant that MacArthur had perforce to give up his clinical work, his teaching and his research, for administration, and in 1938, when it was clear that the medical services must be expanded, he became director-general.

With characteristic energy he coped with the losses of equipment at Dunkirk and in Norway and prepared for the campaigns in Eritrea and Egypt, but no doubt welcomed retirement from the active list in 1941 as it allowed his return to his work in tropical medicine. He was appointed lecturer and additional member of the faculty of medicine at Oxford and consultant to the Royal Masonic Hospital, and gave devoted service to the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine, of which he was president, 1959-61, and editor of its Transactions from 1938. Yet he somehow found time for his other interests.

As a historian and a linguist with unusual knowledge of the Celtic languages he opened old manuscripts for researches into the background of plague, leprosy and typhus, and made special studies of the Irish famine of 1846 (Ulster med. J., 1951, 20, 1-15) and of the still unsolved Appin murder, his prolonged research appearing as The Appin murder (1954). He had a great love of literature, both prose and verse. He was a student of Swinburne, Tennyson, Stevenson and Neil Munro, and his aptness for words owed much to the Authorised Version of the Bible.

To the unseeing, Mac Arthur was dour, taciturn and humourless; they did not appreciate that this was but a mask which concealed from all, save his intimate friends, his sensitivity and friendliness. His utter incapacity for small talk expressed a seriousness of purpose and a standard of integrity that demanded meticulous language in systematic lectures, which he supplemented by a course in medical entomology, illustrated by a careful demonstration of specimens he had himself collected.

These qualities were recognised in examinerships at Cambridge, London, and Liverpool, and the Royal College of Surgeons, in the Arnott (1929), Chadwick (1935), Robert Campbell (1951) and Scott Heron (1951) medals, and in honorary degrees from Belfast and Oxford Universities.

In 1914 he married Eugénie Thérèse, daughter of Dr Antelme, of Paris and Mauritius. They had two sons.

Richard R Trail

* He was elected under the special bye-law which provides for the election to the fellowship of "Persons holding a medical qualification, but not Members of the College, who have distinguished themselves in the practice of medicine, or in the pursuit of Medical or General Science or Literature..."

[Army med. Serv. Mag., 1964, 16, 103;, 1964, 2, 389-90 (p); J. roy. Army med. Cps, 1964, 110, 216-20, bibl.; Lancet, 1964, 2, 321 (p). Photo.]

(Volume V, page 249)

<< Back to List