The Dispensary Movement

There was an increasing interest in providing outpatient medical relief from at least 1767, when a parliamentary statute, 7 Geo. III, c. 15, allowed the Dublin Society to use part of its grant to establish a pharmacopoeia pauperum ‘for dispensing medicines to the poor of the city of Dublin according to a plan laid down by John Wade chemist’. Some wealthy people made individual arrangements with apothecaries for the supply of medicines to the poor.

Then, in the closing decades of the century, there was an important development in medical care: the establishment of the Sick Poor’s Institution in Dublin. Anyone subscribing a guinea a year could send a poor sick person for treatment or, if necessary, arrange a home visit from a physician, while required medicines were provided without cost. The idea became popular, and other institutions were established in the capital and elsewhere. By 1800 three of these dispensaries had been established in Dublin.

In the 1790 Almanac there is a record of the Dublin General Dispensary’s first four-and-a-half years. The Dispensary had been established by six physicians and six surgeons to provide medical and surgical care and dispense medicines to the sick poor who for various reasons could not get into hospitals. The Duke of Leinster was president of the organisation, and the Dispensary was supported by voluntary contributions. Persons subscribing one guinea became annual Governors with the privilege of being able to nominate one patient to be constantly under attendance. Those subscribing five guineas became life Governors with the same privilege.

It opened on 18 April 1784 in premises in the Old Post Office Yard, and by 1 November 1789, 3,227 patients had been treated. Of these 2,331 were cured or relieved at the Dispensary; 726 were visited at their own homes; 47 had died and 31 were recommended to other charities as being unable to sustain themselves at home; three were discharged as incurable and two dismissed as ‘irregular’. In November 1789 there were 72 patients on the books. Persons meeting with sudden accidents would be visited immediately on application to the Dispensary, and assistance would be afforded in cases of apparent death from drowning or suffocation.

From Dublin the dispensary movement spread throughout the country. For instance, in 1792 the Belfast Dispensary advertised for support in the Belfast News Letter, and in 1793 a dispensary was established in Tanderagee, Co. Armagh. In 1795 a newspaper report on the dispensary movement stated that:

They are regularly attended by a physician, surgeon and apothecary, and have medicine, wine &c. distributed to them gratis. The cost is less than £20 a year, raised by donations from the gentry, and during the two years the scheme has been in operation two hundred individuals … have been helped.

The dispensary movement gained great social importance in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Ireland, but for a long time its infrastructure was too slender and its resources totally inadequate for the problems it was trying to alleviate.