Ballinrobe's Professor of Anatomy, Ambrose Birmingham M.D., F.R.C.S.I. (1864-1905)

Photo:Ambrose Birmingham born Ballinrobe 1864.  He returned frequently to visit his home place.

Ambrose Birmingham born Ballinrobe 1864. He returned frequently to visit his home place.

Born on Bridge Street, Ballinrobe

Researched by Averil Staunton

Well known Professor of Anatomy, Ambrose Birmingham M.D., F.R.C.S.I. (1864-1905) was born on Bridge Street, Ballinrobe  in 1864.   He was the third of eleven children, with six surviving to adulthood.   His father, Alfred was a miller from Westport, but folklore locally has it that he was not a great business man, and his ventures failed in the economic depression that followed the Famine c1849/50.   He was reduced to working as a clerk in the Mill which he owned.

Family Business

Alfred’s wife Anna, who was younger, then opened and operated a very successful bakery in Ballinrobe .  Alfred was content to let her supervise and run it while he, a gentle man, grew his roses and strolled through the town like a gentleman of leisure.   His gentle nature influenced his children in spite of his wife’s domineering nature.   Anna, who had been forced to take on the family reins for economic survival, was a Gibbons from Partry and, following her successful bakery, opened a public house and grain supplier business in town.


Ambrose spent his early schooldays in St. Joseph’s Christian Brothers School at the Cornmarket in Ballinrobe and then went on to the Vincentian Fathers' Secondary School at Castleknock College in Dublin.   Castleknock has good facilities for science and this may have the reason for his choosing a medical career on graduation.  His four brothers studied medicine also; however they all went to different medical schools.   He founded the Castleknock Past Pupils Reunion and later gave lectures and lantern shows on his travels abroad.

University Medical School

Ambrose attended the Catholic University School at Cecilia St, Dublin, now the location of Temple Bar region, where his record as a student was outstanding.   He took several exhibitions and was awarded Honours at the various test of the College of Physicians at the Royal University.   In 1887 he qualified “first of first Honours” in the M.B. examination of the Royal University from where he received his M.D. degree and in 1892 was elected F.R.U.I. and in 1897 his F.R.C.S.I.


Sir Christopher Nixon (Chair of Anatomy) saw Birmingham’s flair for Anatomy and encouraged him, on qualification, to study in Edinburgh under the doyen of British anatomists, Sir. William Turner. Only a few months later, at the age of 23 years, he was appointed Dean and Professor of Anatomy at the Catholic University of Ireland Medical School from 1887 to 1905. Through his zeal and ability, the school was modernised and survived the long critical period from 1880 to1909.  

He was very popular with his students and illustrated his lectures with wonderful drawings.

He was also a talented researcher and made valuable contributions to his chosen field and was appointed and Extern Examiner to Cambridge University.


In 1903 Birmingham produced the first of three intended volumes of his Notebook of Anatomy.  This book remained the bible of generations of medical students and was illustrated by his own drawings.   It was designed to be used in conjunction with lectures and even had extremely wide margins to allow for note taking.   To improve facilities for his students he also advocated Lantern slides as an aid to anatomical demonstrations.


Following his appointment as Professor, a year later Birmingham was appointed Registrar of the Medical Faculty at Cecilia Street which was experiencing serious financial difficulties.   No funding was received from the State and it had no endowment as it was not recognised for conferring degrees or diplomas and therefore received no fees for examinations.  It depended on the fees from its students and the occasional grant for the Catholic hierarchy.

Birmingham with his usual flair was equal to the task of improving matters and soon displayed a talent for administration equal to his teaching talent.   Cecilia Street student were beginning to win an inordinately high proportion of prizes and exhibitions and the numbers grew until by 1901 there were almost 300 students.   This made it the largest medical school in Ireland and the fourth in the British Isles.   What an achievement from this Ballinrobe man!

Other Interests

Birmingham was a wonderful painter and story-teller.  His friends, of which there were many good ones wanted him to publish the fairy tales he made up for his children, of which he and his wife had four.   He had a great interest in Botany and was a member of the Zoological Society.

He loved travelling with his family and frequently came to Connemara and Ballinrobe.   Together with his good friends he would travel for three or four weeks each year on the Continent mainly on bicycles.   They toured many parts including France, Holland, Germany, Norway and the Balkans.   Birmingham spoke fluent French and German as well as a little Greek and Turkish.

Photography had captured his interest and he had a darkroom at home where he developed photographs and lantern slides which he used to illustrate his talks and lectures.

His Health

In spite of all his achievements Birmingham had poor eyesight and suffered severe headaches from to time.   His health slowly declined from 1902 and he was diagnosed with Bright’s disease and progressive arteriosclerosis.   However, it is thought he actually had a cerebral tumour.   His health continued to go downhill and towards the end of 1904 this vivacious and incredible talented Ballinrobe man was admitted to the Mater Hospital where he died on 23 rd January 1905 at the age of 41 years.  

Ambrose Birmingham Medal

The Birmingham Medal is awarded by his old Alma Mater, University College, Dublin as a token of debt owed by UCD for his contributions to the continuity of his traditions and dedication to the modernised and thus the survival, over the long critical period, from 1880 to 1909 of the Medical School.  Competition for the Medal is open only to candidates who have completed the Second Year of the degree course in Medicine at the time of the Medal examination and is based on the results of a special examination in Anatomy held during the summer examinations in May.


Dalton, W. Ambrose Birmingham, Castleknock Chronicle 1905, pp 20, 86.

Birmingham, A. Presidential address in the Section of Anatomy and Physiology of the Royal Academy of Medicine in Ireland for the session 1888-89. Dub. J. Med. Sc. 87 pp, 302-304.

McWeeney, E. J. In Memoriam; Ambrose Birmingham. St. Stephen’s Press, Dublin 2 pp, 149-150


This page was added by Averil Staunton on 11/12/2011.
Comments about this page

Ah guys, a comment on that piece: the Royal University was NOT Trinity College, Trinity College was a separate college altogether! The Royal University was a predecessor of today's UCD in Dublin and was located on the site of Earlsfort Terrace, where the National Concert Hall now stands.

By Conor
On 15/03/2012

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