‘Lest we forget’: RMS Leinster 1918-2018

On 19th October 1918, Isabel Thompson received a letter from the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, sympathising with her on the death of her husband William.

William died on 10th October 1918 when the RMS Leinster, a civilian ship owned by the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company, was destroyed in the final phase of the First World War. William had been knighted the previous January for his contribution to the war effort, which included working in an asylum in Scotland.

‘Over 500 people lost their lives in the sinking of the RMS Leinster, the greatest single loss of life in the Irish Sea. A mail boat on the Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) – Holyhead route, the ship was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine just outside Dublin bay. Nine days after the tragedy The Lancet reported that

‘at least three medical men were on board and have not since been traced, and several nurses have also disappeared’.

Unfortunately, the names of the nurses are not given, but the three medical men are named; Captain Digby Burns, Dr R E Lee and Sir W Henry Thompson.

Thompson, originally from Granard, Co. Longford, studied mathematics and medicine at Queen’s College Galway, graduating in 1883. Thompson spent most of his professional life in teaching first as anatomy demonstrate at TCD, then as Professor of Physiology at Queen’s College, Belfast, before returning to Trinity as Chair of the Institute of Medicine.  In 1916 Thompson wrote to the College to inform them that he intended to take up a post as an assistant at a Scottish asylum to ‘take the place of the younger medical men who are called up for military service’, in addition to his work in Trinity. Trinity had approved Thompson’s plan, and he asked the College to grant him leave of absence as a College Fellow, which would allow him to leave for Scotland.

Thompson’s war service was not confined to work in Scotland. He was soon appointed to the Ministry of Food in London as a scientific adviser. There he carried out experiments into the nutritional values of foods which were ‘of great national importance to the Food Controller in the drafting of schemes for the rationing of the food of the nation’.  His contribution to the war effort was recognised in January 1918 when he was knighted. It was to attend a meeting at the Ministry of Food that Thompson was travelling from Dublin to London on 10th October on the ill-fated RMS Leinster.’


Learn more about William Thompson:

Details on William’s professional career are provided by the blog of the Heritage Centre of The Royal College of Physicians of Ireland.

Several letters relating to Thompson’s career were contributed to the Letters 1916-1923 project by the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland.


Explore the history of the RMS Leinster:

“Myles Dungan presents RTÉ Radio 1’s History Show.
In this segment he looks at the sinking of the RMS Leinster,
torpedoed by a German u-boat in the Irish Sea on 10 October 1918.”

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