A boy the Kidd: The Limerick doctor who held a British PM’s hand as he passed away

Limerick historian and author Sharon Slater

Traditional medical practices during most of the 19th century tended to be a case of trial and error. Let’s face it, a lot of error.

It often relied on the treatment of symptoms rather than discovering the cause. These medical regimens resulted in high rates of death in patients unfortunate enough to undergo treatment such as bloodletting, blistering, and high doses of mineral poisons.

There were some who pioneered new modes of medical treatment, taking patients’ general wellbeing into account before prescribing invasive treatments. Limerick at this time saw the rise of hospitals and doctors. The County Hospital (now UHL) and the Lock and Fever Hospital (now St John’s Hospital) were both established in the eighteenth century. Barrington Hospital, for those curious, opened its doors in 1829.

It was into this environment that the Kidd family grew in Sir Harry’s Mall and Lock Quay.

Rebecca Kidd (née White) and Thomas Keane Kidd (a merchant first in corn and later in soap and candles) had at least fifteen children – with some reports going up to twenty – in the early 1800s.

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The eldest son died of liver disease in 1824, aged only 18. That same year, their seventh son, Joseph Kidd, was born.

Joseph, like his parents, went on to have an incredibly large family. He fathered eight children with his first wife Sophia McKern, who was a childhood friend in Limerick. He had a further seven with his second wife, the English-born Frances Rouse.

When he was only seven years old, Joseph’s mother died. Soon after this, he went into formal education in several schools in Limerick of varying religions. He attended both a Quaker and a Roman Catholic school, though he was a member of neither faith.

Like so many in Limerick, Kidd and his family would holiday in Kilkee, getting there by boat down the Shannon. The ability to holiday, as well as to educate their large family, shows that the family business was relatively successful.

Joseph Kidd trained in medicine both locally and in Dublin. In 1844, he received a first-class premium for chemistry and botany. His teacher was one of his elder brothers living in Doonass, County Clare.

In December 1846, he was admitted to the Royal College of Surgeons in London and graduated with an M.R.C.S.

Kidd quickly secured an appointment at the newly-opened Homeopathic Hospital, London. There he was taught by Dr Paul Francois Curie, the grandfather-in-law of the double Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie. He was only there for a short period before realising his skills were needed in his home country.

The year was 1847, or Black 47, the toughest part of the Great Famine. Joseph Kidd, then only twenty-three, set up in Bantry, County Cork, to help those who were suffering from the impacts of starvation and disease.

In May that year he wrote to the editor of the Times of London informing them of the condition in the south of the country. He estimated that Bantry had 3,200 inhabitants, of those 450 were suffering from a fever.

Dr Joseph Kidd went on to describe homes of those affected by fever as “living in close, ill ventilated huts, surrounded by a dense atmosphere of smoke, and seldom separated from other members of the family… In several cases [he saw] the poor sufferers obliged to sit crouching over the fire, from the want of sufficient clothes to cover them or even straw to lie upon.”

He went on to inform the editor of the lack of food and that the government-issued relief rice was wholly insufficient, saying that he witnessed those in convalescence starving with no more than three pounds of rice a week to eat.

He believed that about a quarter of the population of the town had already died as a result of the famine.

He was an advocate of homeopathy while in Cork, due to his care being sponsored by the Homoeopathic Hospital. His name was used later used as someone who endorsed Dr de Jongh’s Light-Brown Cod Liver Oil. Though unlike The Great Sequah’s claims, the benefits of cod liver oil are still recognised today.

Following the Famine, Joseph Kidd returned to England where he opened a medical practice in Blackheath. Here he had the first of his many children. Blackheath was originally in Kent but was amalgamated into the County of London while the Kidd family were living there.

Kidd continued his medical training, graduating an MD from King’s College, Aberdeen, in 1853.

Despite his degree in medicine, he always believed that the doctrine of homeopathy could supply a clue to the treatment of obscure cases. He was heavily in favour of good hygiene and believed that to study the effects of individual remedies it was best to only prescribe one drug at a time. He once stated that “diet and clothing have more to do with health than all the medicines”.

He also opened a consultancy in Central London, where he began treating some of the richest and most powerful people in England, including Stafford Northcote, 1st Earl of Iddesleigh.

He was physician to at least two British Prime Ministers, William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli. Although Disraeli complained in his personal diary in 1877 that Dr Joseph Kidd “only receives, and does not pay visits – convenient for a Prime Minister!”

Disraeli later conceded that “I entertain the highest opinion of Dr Kidd, and that all the medical men I have known, and I have seen the highest, seem much inferior to him, in quickness of observation, and perception, and reasonableness, and at the same time originality, of his measures”.

The following year the doctor made an exception to his rule about visiting patients when he was summoned to Berlin to care for the then British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. This care did not come cheap as Kidd charged a hundred guineas a day that he was away from his practice in London.

He again attended Disraeli three years later as the latter suffered from a bout of asthma and gout. Dr Joseph Kidd prescribed claret for the gout and arsenic for the cough, though this did not help the condition. Soon afterwards Disraeli had caught a fatal chill and lay dying in his home at Mayfair. The good doctor sat with the former Prime Minister and held his hand as he passed away.

As a side note, Queen Victoria did not approve of Dr Kidd’s treatment and asked Disraeli to see Richard Quain, a Cork-born doctor who began his medical training as a teenager in Limerick. He confirmed Kidd’s diagnosis and was also in attendance at the death of the Prime Minister.

Finally, in 1912, Dr Kidd retired. His years of medical knowledge worked to his advantage as he died in Sussex on August 20, 1918, aged ninety-four years old.

The medical aptitude continued through his family as at least four of his many children – Percy, Francis, Walter, Leonard, and Beatrice – followed him into medicine. His grandchildren also made names for themselves in different ways. His grandson Eric Leslie Kidd became an international cricketer and director of the Guinness brewery in Dublin, while another, Leonard Joseph Kidd, was an activist against injustice and founded the Council for Civil Liberties.

For further reading on Dr Joseph Kidd’s work during the famine check out:

Francis Treuherz, Homeopathy in the Irish Potato Famine (1995).