Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Perceval, Robert

PERCEVAL, ROBERT, M.D. (1756–1839), physician and chemist, youngest son of William Perceval, by his second wife, Elizabeth Ward of Lisbane, co. Down, was born in Dublin on 30 Sept. 1756. He was descended from Sir Philip Perceval [q. v.], and hence related to the earls of Egmont. He entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1772, and graduated B.A. in 1777. He then proceeded to Edinburgh, where he studied medicine, and graduated M.D. on 24 June 1780, with a thesis on the physiology of the heart. After studying two years on the continent, he returned to Dublin in 1783, when he was appointed lecturer on chemistry in the university. On 24 Nov. of the same year he was elected licentiate of the King's and Queen's College of Physicians; he subsequently became fellow. In 1785 he was appointed first professor of chemistry in the university of Dublin, and remained in this post till 1805. In 1785 he took an active part in founding the Royal Irish Academy, his name appearing in the charter, and he was for a long period secretary of this body. In 1786 he was appointed inspector of apothecaries, and in the exercise of his functions incurred some temporary unpopularity. In 1785 he also helped to found the Dublin General Dispensary. He now gave much time, thought, and money to medical and other charities in Dublin. He was admitted M.B. and M.D. by Dublin University in 1793.

In April 1799 a committee of the Irish House of Lords was appointed to inquire into the application of the funds left by Sir Patrick Dun [q. v.] Perceval was examined, and he declared that he did not think the King's and Queen's College of Physicians had faithfully discharged its trust in this matter. On the report of the committee, the ‘School of Physic Act’ was passed, the royal assent being given on 1 Aug. 1800. In accordance with this act a hospital, called Sir Patrick Dun's hospital, was built from the surplus funds of Dun's bequest, and it was opened on 25 Oct. 1808. Although Perceval had been censured by the College of Physicians for his share in the promotion of the bill, he was elected president of the college on 4 Nov. 1799. A special clause was, however, inserted in the bill by his own desire, according to which no university or King's professor could remain a fellow of the college. He therefore vacated his presidency and fellowship, but was elected honorary fellow on 18 Oct. 1800. He subsequently became involved in personal controversy with his colleague, Dr. E. Hill, who was obliged, under the provisions of the act, to resign the professorship of botany, which he had held simultaneously with the regius professorship of physic. Perceval now became an active member of the ‘Prison Discipline Society,’ subsequently merged with the Howard Society, and was called ‘the Irish Howard’ (Proceedings of the Howard Society, 14 Feb. 1832). On 18 March 1819 he was appointed physician-general to the forces in Ireland. In 1821 he published an essay, in which he sought to show from the texts of the New Testament that Christ, although a divine person, was distinct from the deity, a doctrine similar to that of Adam Clarke [q. v.] After a lingering illness he died on 3 March 1839. He married, in 1786, Anne, daughter of W. Brereton of Rathgilbert.

Perceval was a successful physician; but his claims to fame rest chiefly on his philanthropic efforts. His published contributions to chemistry are unimportant; the notes for a medical treatise he intended to publish were handed to John Mason Good [q. v.], on Perceval's hearing that Good contemplated a similar undertaking.

His published works are: 1. ‘Tentamen Physiologicum Inaugurale De Corde,’ Edinburgh, 1780. 2. ‘An Account of the Bequest of Sir P. Dun,’ Dublin, 1804. 3. ‘An Essay to establish the Divinity of … Christ … with a Review of the Doctrine of the Trinity,’ Dublin, 1821. And the following papers in the science section of the ‘Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy’: 4. Chemical communications and inquiries [‘On the Distillation of Acids’], 1790, iv. 85; 5. ‘On a Chamber-lamp Furnace,’ 1790, iv. 91; 6. ‘On the Solution of Lead by Lime,’ 1791, v. 89; 7. ‘On some Chalybeate Preparations,’ 1810, xi. 3. He left some other treatises in manuscript.

[Taylor's Univ. of Dublin, p. 443; Watt's Bibl. Brit.; Dublin University Calendar, 1833; Register of the King's and Queen's Coll. of Phys. Ireland; Parthenon, 11 May 1839; Hill's Address to Students of Physic, September 1803, and Address to the President and Fellows of the King's and Queen's Royal Coll. of Phys. February 1805; Book of Trinity College, Dublin, 1892; Plan and List of Members of the Royal Irish Academy, 1785; Cameron's History … of the Irish Schools of Medicine, 1886; Gmelin's Gesch. der Chemie, iii. 567; private information from Dr. G. P. L. Nugent, Fellow and Registrar of the Royal College of Physicians, Ireland, and a manuscript memoir by Perceval's grandson, Major Robert Perceval Maxwell of Finnebrogue, kindly communicated to the writer.]

P. J. H.