Berkeley George Andrew Moynihan (1865-1936)

Berkeley George Andrew Moynihan (1865-1936)When Berkeley Moynihan was presented to George V in 1912, the King said he was proud ‘to shake the most skilful hand in the world’. The supremely confident Moynihan probably took this compliment as his due. From modest beginnings he had built an international reputation as a pioneering and successful surgeon, attracting the most distinguished clients (and colossal fees). He had an important advisory role in WW1, and was later given a peerage as Baron Moynihan of Leeds, his title celebrating his long association with the city where he had grown up, worked and lived.

His original ambition was to be a soldier, like his Irish grandfather and his father Andrew, who had won the VC in the Crimea (he inherited his red hair). Berkeley was born in Malta in 1865, but when he was two his father died of fever and his mother Ellen had to return home with the family. They had just a tiny pension, so they were taken in by Ellen’s sister and her husband, a police inspector in Leeds. They lived in a small house in Chapeltown and Berkeley went to a local private school before entering Christ’s Hospital School in London, and then the Royal Naval School. His mind was still set on a military career, but finally he fell in with his mother’s wish for him to be a doctor.

At eighteen he entered the Leeds Medical School. His two uncles helped to meet the substantial cost, a dependency which must have spurred him on. He proved a star student, and qualified in 1887. He started work as a surgical intern at the LGI, the beginning of his life-long association with the hospital. He acquired other posts at Armley Gaol and the Ida Hospital at Cookridge, and worked for a spell in Berlin before coming back to the LGI, where he was finally elected to the coveted position of Surgeon in 1896.

He brought with him fresh ideas. Surgery was still a bloody and perilous business, conducted in a stained apron, with bare hands. Joseph Lister’s ideas on antiseptics and the need for sterile conditions were still novel, but Moynihan was an enthusiast. He insisted on clean white coats and, after a visit to the USA, new-fangled rubber gloves, to his colleagues’ amusement. Above all he favoured a gentler, scrupulous, more patient-centred approach to surgery. The perfect surgeon, he said, must have the heart of a lion and the hands of a lady, not the claws of a lion and the heart of a sheep!

His speciality was abdominal surgery: he published several research papers, followed in 1905 by a major work, Abdominal Operations, which became a standard text, and later by Duodenal Ulcer (1910), which secured his reputation as a clinical scientist. Alongside his LGI work, he was lecturer and later professor of surgery at Leeds University. He was a knowledgeable, elegant lecturer (a lover of words), and enjoyed opportunities for public speaking, in this country and on his many visits to the USA.
He had a private practice in Park Square, with his own nursing home. Good-looking, calmly authoritative, eloquent, he inspired confidence. As his reputation spread patients began to flock to him from outside Leeds and then further afield, often noted in the press. His fees increased correspondingly.

In 1895 he married Isabella Jessop, the daughter of his chief at the LGI. They lived first in Woodhouse Square, then Clarendon Road, but in 1914 moved with their three children to Carr Manor in Meanwood, a beautiful rambling house in extensive gardens (the Judges’ Lodgings now) That same year saw the outbreak of war. Moynihan offered to lead a medical team to France, and was invited, with the rank of Colonel and later Major-General, to chair the Army Medical Advisory Board. In Leeds he took a special interest in the Beckett Park military hospital, and operated on many wounded servicemen. He saw it all as an exciting and enjoyable challenge.

He was knighted in 1912, and after the War more honours were heaped on him: a baronetcy in 1922, a peerage in 1929; freedom of the city of Leeds in 1926; election to the prestigious position of President of the Royal College of Surgeons. Some thought him vain, self-centred, greedy, but Leeds surgery benefited from his dedication and his international reputation helped to establish Leeds as a centre of excellence.

He died suddenly in 1936, overcome with grief at the death of his wife Isabella six days before. The offer of burial at Westminster Abbey was rejected: they are buried side by side at Lawnswood.

Eveleigh Bradford
March 2017