Professor MacConnaill

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MacConaill at the Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland, Summer Meeting, Queen's University Belfast, May, 1931


Professor Michael Aloysius MacConaill was President of the Society in 1946 and Vice-President in 1967.
While Professor of Anatomy at UCC he seems to have been a frequent quest of the society, adjudicating a round of the Irish Times Debating Competition on Saturday 2nd December 1961 in the Dairy Science Hall, UCC (on the the motion: “That monarchy is an outdated concept”) and being present for Sean McBride's visit in the 100th Session.

The professor's daughter Maireann MacConaill would appear to have been a member of the society also.

Michael Aloysius MacConaill was born in Ballymena, Co. Antrim in 1902,1 the eldest of five children; his father was a merchant and his mother was a mezzosoprano. His family moved to Belfast and Michael attended St Mary’s Christian Brothers School from where, in 1919, he obtained first place in the Queen’s University entrance scholarship examination. The first Dáil had met in Dublin’s Mansion House on the 21st of January in that year and MacConaill joined its “parliamentary army”, becoming a field ambulance officer in Belfast during the War of Independence.

At Queen’s, he broke the mould by becoming the first Catholic to be elected to the Students’ Representative Council and to become President of the Literary and Scientific Society. In the Medical School, he was encouraged by the Professor of Anatomy, Thomas Walmsley, to take an intercalated BSc degree and he graduated in Human Embryology and Anthropology with honours in July 1922. He was a clinical student in the Mater, graduating in 1925, and was a housesurgeon there. Walmsley wished to appoint him as an Anatomy Demonstrator and, when this was blocked, Walmsley arranged for a postgraduate scholarship.

He was, however, appointed a Demonstrator in the following year and promoted to Senior Demonstrator in 1928. He was awarded his MSc in July 1928 for a thesis titled “The correlations of length, breadth, and height in forty mixed crania”, and he presented this work to a meeting of the Anatomical Society at Queen’s in 1931.

MacConaill was awarded the Queen’s University Medical Travelling Studentship for 1929-30 to visit University College, London where he continued his work on statistical anthropology. From there he went to the University of Sheffield, initially as a Senior Demonstrator, but he was promoted to Lecturer by mid-1930. In 1942, MacConaill returned to Ireland to take up the Chair of Anatomy in University College, Cork. He revitalised the Department’s teaching and research, collaborating with Edward Gurr to develop tissue staining methods, with Eric Scher on the geometry of the dental arcades, and applied Boolean algebra to neuronal networks. He was elected a Member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1945 and awarded a DSc by the Queen’s University of Belfast in 1950 and an MA by the National University of Ireland in 19641. In 1950 he took on the role Officer Commanding the Army’s First Field Medical Company, from which he retired in 1967 with the rank of Commandant. Michael MacConaill retired from UCC in 1973 and died in 1987.

MacConaill was one of the most prolific scientists in mid 20th Century Ireland. He published a great number of scientific articles and invited book chapters, and co-authored two highly regarded books: Synovial Joints: Their Structure and Mechanics and Muscles and Movements: A Basis for Human Kinesiology; this latter book also appearing in a second edition. Besides these two books, MacConaill published two comprehensive series of papers on the mechanics of synovial joints, one series in the Irish Journal of Medical Science and another series in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery. His work on the mode of lubrication in synovial joints is still widely cited and his research into generalised methods for describing and analysing the motion of joints is well known as part of the science of kinesology which is central to medical specialities from orthopaedics and physiotherapy to rheumatology and rehabilitation. It is perhaps an indication of his reputation that he was asked to contribute the chapter on human joints to the 15th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Today the MacConaill Prize is named after him and is to "be awarded to the candidate who, in the opinion of the Professor of Anatomy, shows most originality in their answers in the Second University Prizes Examination in Clinical Anatomy." [1]