William Whitla

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Sir William Whitla
Sir William Whitla Wellcome M0014776.jpg
Member of Parliament
for Queen's University of Belfast
In office
14 December 1918 – 6 December 1923
Preceded byConstituency created
Succeeded byThomas Sinclair
Personal details
Born(1851-09-15)15 September 1851
Monaghan, Ireland
Died(1933-12-11)11 December 1933
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Political partyUlster Unionist Party
Spouse(s)Ada Bourne
Alma materQueen's College Belfast
Bust of Sir William Whitla on the Whitla Hall, Queen's University, Belfast

Sir William Whitla (15 September 1851 – 11 December 1933) was an Irish physician and politician.

Early life[edit]

Born at The Diamond, Monaghan, William was the fourth son of Robert Whitla, a woollen draper and pawnbroker, and his wife Anne, daughter of Alexander Williams of Dublin. His first cousin was painter Alexander Williams RHA. Educated at the town's Model School, he was articled at fifteen to his brother James, a local pharmacist, completing his apprenticeship with Wheeler and Whitaker, Belfast's leading pharmaceutical firm. Proceeding to study medicine at Queen's College, Belfast, Whitla took the LAH, Dublin, and the LRCP and LRCS of Edinburgh in 1873.[1]


With his qualifications he obtained a post as resident medical officer at the Belfast General Hospital.[1][2] He next spent some time in London, at St Thomas's Hospital, where he met his future wife, Ada Bourne (1846–1932), daughter of George Bourne, a prominent Staffordshire farmer. She was a ward sister and friend of Florence Nightingale, and a member of the Salvation Army.

The pair were married in 1876, setting up house at 41, Great Victoria Street, Belfast, where Whitla established a general medical practice. He was awarded the MD of the Queen's University of Ireland in 1877, with first class honours, gold medal, and commendation.

Whitla was appointed physician to the Belfast Royal Hospital and the Ulster Hospital for Children and Women in 1882. He held post at the Belfast Royal Hospital and in the Royal Victoria Hospital, of which it was the forerunner, until his retirement in 1918.[1] The Whitlas' move in 1884 to 8, College Square North, was an indication of a success by no means near its zenith. He succeeded Seaton Reid as professor of materia medica at the Queen's College in 1890; he was twice president of the Ulster Medical Society (1886–7, 1901–2). Appointed a Knight Bachelor in the 1902 Coronation Honours list published on 26 June 1902,[3] he was knighted by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Earl Cadogan, at Dublin Castle on 11 August 1902.[4] In 1906 Whitla was appointed a governor of Methodist College Belfast and he took a keen interest in the school's affairs.[5] That year the Whitlas moved to Lennoxvale, a suburban mansion, they also retained the professional house in College Square. In 1919, he retired as Professor of Materia Medica in the university.[1]

He served the British Medical Association as president (presenting each member who attended the annual meeting held in Belfast in 1909 with a copy of his most recent book, The Theory and Practice of Medicine, and entertaining them at Lennoxvale).

Political career[edit]

A strong unionist, he was elected to parliament in 1918, serving until 1923 as representative of the Queen's University at Westminster. He was appointed honorary physician to the king in Ireland in 1919 and was subsequently university pro-chancellor.[1]

Later life[edit]

Sir William and Lady Whitla were childless, and they were wealthy. Together with his practice and books he had a flair for making wise investments, buying oil shares to his great financial advantage. The Whitlas travelled widely, visiting Russia, Canada, and many Mediterranean cities.

As a biblical scholar he contributed an introductory study of the nature and the cause of unbelief, of miracles, and prophecy to an edition of Sir Isaac Newton's Daniel and the Apocalypse[6] published by John Murray in 1922. As the decade progressed his public appearances were fewer, and after a stroke in 1929 he was confined to his room. Lady Whitla died in 1932; he died at Lennoxvale on 11 December 1933, and was given a civic funeral two days later; he was buried at Belfast City Cemetery.

The Whitla Hall, Queen's University, Belfast

During Whitla's lifetime his gifts to his profession included the Good Samaritan stained glass window (commemorating the heroic behaviour of two Ulster doctors) erected in the Royal Hospital, and a building to house the Ulster Medical Society. At his death Lennoxvale was bequeathed to Queen's University as a residence for the Vice-Chancellor. The university also was his residuary legatee, and acted on his suggestion that the available funds should provide an assembly hall. The Sir William Whitla Hall was opened in 1949.[1]

He also left £10,000 to Methodist College Belfast to build a chapel, library or hall.[5] The Whitla Hall at the Methodist College was opened in 1935.[7]

Selected publications[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f "Ulster Medical Society: William Whitla". Retrieved 15 July 2016.
  2. ^ "The Dictionary of Ulster Biography". Retrieved 15 July 2016.
  3. ^ "The Coronation Honours". The Times (36804). London. 26 June 1902. p. 5.
  4. ^ "Ireland". The Times (36844). London. 12 August 1902. p. 9.
  5. ^ a b Richard, Froggatt. "The Dictionary of Ulster Biography". www.newulsterbiography.co.uk.
  6. ^ David N. Livingstone. "Science, Religion and the Geography of Reading: Sir William Whitla and the Editorial Staging of Isaac Newton's Writings on Biblical Prophecy". The British Journal for the History of Science. Vol. 36, No. 1. Mar. 2003. pp. 27–42.
  7. ^ "The Whitla Hall: The Old and New" (PDF).

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
New Constituency
Member of Parliament for Queen's University of Belfast
Succeeded by
Thomas Sinclair