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A Tale of Two Pharmacists

By Terry Maguire - 28th Sep 2021

Middle eastern male pharmacist scanning barcode of medicine drug to customers in modern pharmacy

Terry Maguire considers the potential historical significance of Pharmacist Matthew McDonald to Irish pharmacy politics.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… Because of my obsession with great stories and am always keen for a better one, I was enthralled by a BBC podcast titled The Pharmacist, which charted the rise and fall of a respected Belfast pharmacist Matthew McDonald MPSI, who practiced in Belfast in the first quarter of the 20th Century. From what historical records his great-great grandson, Australian Ian McBurney, could find, it seems the political environment he lived and actively participated in, rather than lack of business acumen, caused his demise and forced emigration.

He opened a pharmacy in 1905 at 122 Donegall Street near Belfast City Centre, and was initially successful; indeed, the pharmacy had a popular cough medicine, Ceoltóir, yet in that name was framed his cultural and political identity and perhaps the central reason for his demise. He was at this time active in the Irish Parliamentary Party and in 1912 was President of the Intellectual Dawn of Freedom branch of the United Irish League in West Belfast, and this most likely brought him to the attention of militant Unionist elements. At a time when Irish politics was at a crucial and violent juncture, his pharmacy was attacked. On returning home one evening, he was set upon by a mob and had a lucky escape. On another occasion, a murder squad, planning to kill him, was let down by a Protestant customer who initially agreed to identify McDonald, but at the last moment reneged. Good customer care, as we know, is always worth the investment.

In 1915 he was recruiting for the Irish Volunteers but by 1920, his pharmacy business was suffering and records show he was in court for a small debt. That could have been easily resolved, but he seemed to quickly lose many of his Protestant customers, significantly impacting the business and finally he was declared bankrupt in 1925. About 500 Catholic-owned Belfast businesses suffered a similar fate in those years.

About 500 Catholic owned Belfast businesses

suffered a similar

fate in those years

McDonald was forced to emigrate with his young family to Australia, where he got work for a time as a dispensing assistant, but an alcohol problem caused him to be dismissed and finally to stop working. He died in Australia in 1937.

The Podcast series, commissioned to celebrate the Centenary of N Ireland, charts the lives of the people living and working in N Ireland at the setting up of the new State. But my interest was piqued when I realised the potential significance of Matthew McDonald to Irish pharmacy politics. Simply, he was on the wrong side of Partition and on the wrong side of history and for these reasons he had a spectacular fall from grace and today is unknown, except to his successful descendants in Australia.

Even when his business was suffering and his party, the Irish Parliamentary Party, was pushed aside by Sinn Féin in the 1918 election, he continued to be active in pharmacy politics. He was elected to the Council of the PSI and regularly attended meetings, expressing concern at the lack of action by the PSI to support pharmacists in the North. In 1923, he was elected President of the N Ireland Pharmacy Association (NIPA) at the same time that he was elected for a second term to Belfast City Council as a counsellor for the Smithfield Ward, where his business was situated. In his role as President of NIPA, he was actively discussing the future regulation of Irish pharmacists following Partition.

In 1924, he attended a Ministry of Home Affairs conference on the future of pharmacy in N Ireland as representative of the main pharmacy body. Pharmacists across the island were first regulated and controlled by the Pharmacy Act of 1875, the Act that set up the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland. The Pharmaceutical Society of N Ireland was set up by the Pharmacy and Poisons (N Ireland) Act 1925. The aim of PSNI was similar to the parent body, to ensure regulation of pharmacists, including provision of pharmacy education, in the newly-formed State.

A main driver behind the separation of pharmacy regulation was Horatio Todd, who opened a pharmacy in 1906 in East Belfast. Horatio Todd was, like Matthew McDonald, a commensurate politician, being President of the East Belfast Imperial Unionist Association and a Justice of the Peace. He was strongly of the Unionist tradition, naming his pharmacy ‘Trafalgar Pharmacy’ after his namesake and hero, Horatio Nelson. His pharmacy in which he worked into his 90s still exists and is now a branch of Boots the Chemist.

Todd and McDonald were contemporaries and knew each other well, according to minutes of meetings. They were leaders on opposing sides of the debate, not only on the Irish question, but also on future regulation of the profession in Ireland. Todd was a close associate and good friend of the newly-appointed Minister of Home Affairs, Dawson Bates, and it was Bates who signed into law in 1925 the Act that set up the Pharmaceutical Society of N Ireland. This was within one year of the conference and now McDonald, once the pre-eminent pharmacist, was going through bankruptcy and planning to emigrate, having lost everything.

The BBC podcast series has reclaimed an important figure in Irish pharmacy politics — a man who, had things worked out differently, who might have made an argument for one regulator of pharmacy across the island rather than two. This happened successfully in other medically-related professions and in accountancy, not to mention Irish Rugby.

Horatio Todd became the first President of the Pharmaceutical Society of N Ireland and lived a full and successful life, dying in 1973. He was an astute businessman, a great networker and stylish self-publicist, building a very successful business, which ironically was less successful after the introduction of the NHS in 1948.

He was a manufacturer of perfumes and human and veterinary medicines and in the year he became president of PSNI, to celebrate, he sent a presentation box of his perfumes to Queen Anne containing his classics ‘Ulster Violets’ and ‘Flowers of Ulster’. Perhaps 1925 was his finest year and he is fondly remembered in East Belfast and has a pub/restaurant named after him.

For Matthew McDonald, impoverished, beaten and contemplating immigration, 1925 was, I suspect, more Dickensian. ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done…’

Contributor Information

Terry Maguire owns two pharmacies in Belfast. He is an honorary senior lecturer at the School of Pharmacy, Queen’s University Belfast. His research interests include the contribution of community pharmacy to improving public health.






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