William James MacNeven

William James MacNeven (21 March 1763 Ballinahown, near Aughrim, Co. Galway, Ireland - 12 July 1841 New York City) was an Irish-American physician, chemist, and writer. One of the oldest obelisks in New York City is dedicated to him to the right facing St. Paul's Chapel on Broadway; while to the left stands another obelisk, dedicated to Thomas Emmet, a fellow United Irishman, and Attorney General of New York. MacNeven's monument features a lengthy inscription in Irish, one of the oldest existent dedications of this kind in the Americas.

William James MacNeven
William James MacNeven.jpg
Born(1763-03-21)21 March 1763
Died13 July 1841(1841-07-13) (aged 78)


The eldest of four sons, at the age of 12 he was sent by his uncle Baron MacNeven, to receive his education abroad, for the penal laws rendered education impossible for Catholics in Ireland. This Baron MacNeven was William O'Kelly MacNeven, an Irish exile physician, who for his medical skill in her service had been created an Austrian noble by the Empress Maria Theresa. Young MacNeven made his collegiate studies at Prague. His medical studies were made at Vienna where he was a pupil of Pestel and took his degree in 1784. The same year he returned to Dublin to practise.[1]

He became involved in the United Irishmen of the time, with such men as Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Thomas Addis Emmet, and his brother Robert Emmet.[2] He was arrested in March 1798, and confined in Kilmainham Jail, and afterwards in Fort George, Scotland, until 1802, when he was liberated and exiled. In 1803, he was in Paris seeking an interview with Bonaparte in order to obtain French troops for Ireland. Disappointed in his mission, MacNeven came to America, landing at New York on 4 July 1805.[1]

In 1807, he delivered a course of lectures on clinical medicine in the recently established College of Physicians and Surgeons. Here in 1808, he received the appointment of professor of midwifery. In 1810, at the reorganization of the school, he became the professor of chemistry, and in 1816 was appointed in addition to the chair of materia medica. In 1826 with six of his colleagues, he resigned his professorship because of a misunderstanding with the New York Board of Regents, and accepted the chair of materia medica in Rutgers Medical College, a branch of the New Jersey institution of that name, established in New York as a rival to the College of Physicians and Surgeons. The school at once became popular because of its faculty, but after four years was closed by legislative enactment on account of interstate difficulties. The attempt to create a school independent of the regents resulted in a reorganization of the University of the State of New York.[1]

MacNeven is affectionately known as "The Father of American Chemistry". He is buried on the Riker Farm in the Astoria section of Queens, New York. He has an obelisk monument commemorated for him in the Trinity Church, located between Wall Street and Broadway, New York. The Obelisk is opposite to another commemorated for his friend Thomas Emmet.[3]


MacNeven married, on 15 June 1810, Mrs. Jane Margaret (née Riker) Tom (1782–1868), widow of John Tom, merchant, of New York, and daughter of U.S. Representative Samuel Riker of New Town, Long Island, by whom he had several children.[4]


MacNeven's best known contribution to science is his "Exposition of the Atomic Theory" (New York, 1820), which was reprinted in the French Annales de Chimie. In 1821 he published with emendations an edition of Brande's "Chemistry" (New York, 1829). Some of his purely literary works, his "Rambles through Switzerland" (Dublin, 1803), his "Pieces of Irish History" (New York, 1807), and his numerous political tracts attracted wide attention. He was co-editor for many years of the "New York Medical and Philosophical Journal".


  1. ^ a b c Walsh 1913.
  2. ^ William James Mac Neven, M.D. galwaylibrary.ie
  3. ^ "Irish patriot and US politician Thomas Addis Emmet honored in New York". IrishCentral.com. 3 November 2016. Retrieved 24 August 2017.
  4. ^ Dunlop 1893.


  •   This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainDunlop, Robert (1893). "MacNeven, William James". In Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. 35. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  •   This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainWalsh, James Joseph (1913). "William James MacNeven". In Herbermann, Charles (ed.). Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.:
    • Francis, Life of MacNeven in Gross, Lives of Eminent American Physicians (Philadelphia, 1861);
    • Gilman in New York Medical Gazette (1841), 65;
    • Byrne, Memoirs of Miles Byrne (Paris, 1863);
    • Madden, Lives of the United Irishmen, series ii, vol. II (London, 1842–46);
    • Fitzpatrick, Secret Service under Pitt (London, 1892–93)

See also: Ingham, George R. Irish Rebel, American Patriot: William James Macneven, 1763-1841, Seattle, WA: Amazon Books, 2015