The Dublin University Biological Association—known as “Biosoc” for short, or traditionally “the Bi”—is the medical students’ society of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin.
The society is the primary social and academic society for medics within the College, and is one of the largest and oldest boasting an annual membership of over 600 undergraduates and having been established in 1874, it is currently in its 144th Session.
Medical societies have existed at Trinity on-and-off since 1801, but in the early years they tended to have short-lived existences. The most notable precursor, the Dublin University Medico-Chirurgical Society was established in early 1868, and was well supported with 14 Vice-Presidents and 136 Ordinary Members by 1869. The name of the first President is lost, but the second and third presidents were the Regius Professor of Surgery, Robert Adams, and the Regius Professor of Physic William Stokes, respectively. The active role taken by these greats in the running of the society probably speaks to the regard in which it was held by contemporaries.
The Association in its current form was established on 27 January 1874 under the guidance of Dr Alexander Macalister, Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy, as well as the other Professors of Natural Science, to promote original scientific investigations by undergraduates “in every branch of Biology”. Meetings were held at 5 Trinity College on the first Tuesday of every month to read and discuss papers on anatomical, zoological and botanical topics, with “tea to be had at seven thirty, and the chair to be taken at eight.”, the annual membership fee was five shillings. The prolific reputation of the Presidents of the Association was maintained by Dr. Macalister who commenced his medical studies in the RCSI at the incredibly early age of 14 having been granted a special recommendation to do so. From then his progress was meteoric, being appointed as a demonstrator aged 16, and achieving a double qualification from the College aged 17. He then entered Trinity College and was appointed Professor of Zoology while still an undergraduate student, precluding him from having to finish his honours degree in Science, the would-be examinee now an examiner in the subject. In 1874 he assumed the Presidency of the Association and in 1883 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society and Chair of Anatomy at Cambridge University.
Early topics of discussion in the Biological Association included whether fish can hear and whether the human appendix supports the theory of evolution. In 1876 it was decided that medical and psychological topics were “suitable” for discussion, and the earliest medical paper presented was on anatomical irregularities. This was soon followed by several other medical topics, including several case reports, and during the years that followed, the society became much more distinctly medical. The rules were amended to include pathology, pharmacology and related areas under the aims of the society. Given the broadly overlapping roles of the Medico-Chirurgical Society and the Biological Association, the membership of the former was subsumed by the latter over the course of several years from 1874 as the business of the Biological Association became nearly exclusively concerned with materia medica. That said, there were some notable exceptions in the coming years, including the presentation of a post-mortem examination of a camel from Dublin Zoological Gardens in 1883, and a paper on ‘Hypnosis’ after which the presenting student attempted (unsuccessfully) to hypnotise a rabbit. Topics of medical discussion moved with the times, including exhibitions of x-ray specimens just months after their discovery by William Roentgen and presentations on new forms of hernia and prostate surgery. In 1897 the Association introduced a public health campaign for clean milk, given the prevalence at the time of tuberculosis in cows’ milk.
In 1880, a medal was introduced for the best paper delivered during the course of the year. At the opening meeting in 1881, Dr Charles Bell proposed the resolution “that the Dublin University Biological Association is worthy of the support of all Students of Medicine and Natural Science”; this motion has been proposed every year since.
The Association admitted women members in 1929, decades before other large societies such as the Hist and the Phil. Our most recent celebration of this fact was last year at the Inaugural Meeting of the 143rd Session, with Anna McCollum in the chair, the main address given by Dr. Rhona Mahony, Master of the National Maternity Hospital, on the topic of ‘Women in Medicine’, and an Honorary Membership presented to Dr. Mary Henry to celebrate 40 years since the first woman presided over the Association. Cognisance of not only the science of medicine but also its social impact is reflected in the topics of debate over the years. In 1967 a large debate organised with the Law and Theological Societies, as well as the UCD Medical Society saw a large majority voting to support the termination of pregnancy under certain circumstances. Social events also became a lot more prevalent in the life of the Association, with the annual dance organised in the ballroom of the Metropole Hotel. By the 1930s this was reported by The Irish Times to be the best-attended student dance in the country.
This year in our 144th Session, our annual ‘Med Ball’ will be attended by 600 students, and our social activities extend far beyond that into sporting events like ‘Med Cup’, our annual Christmas trip abroad (this year, over 200 of us will travel to Edinburgh), and various themed nights out throughout the term. Broader events include our several Careers Nights, academic talks, debates with UCD, intervarsity concerts, and our Art in Medicine night. As well as these activities, the Association has a large charity arm in the form of the ‘Med Day’ subcommittee, this year chaired by Claudine Howard-James. The subcommittee organise the annual ‘Med Day’ collection in Dublin city centre as well as corporate sponsorship and a large variety of student fundraising events in the run-up to Med Day. This year already the organisers have raised in excess of €50,000 for causes in Trinity teaching hospitals.
The Association has a close relationship with the School of Medicine, the Inaugural Meeting of the Association being the event at which academic awards are made for the previous years’ studies. This year we are also making a particular effort to engage with clinicians and lecturers in our teaching hospitals as well as alumni by reviving the position of ‘Fellow’ within the Association, we hope for them to attend several of the social events in our calendar, culminating with the Fellows/Alumni Dinner at the end of the academic year in Summer 2019.