Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The Genealogy of Intelligence in My Line of Sproules

My father, Bob Sproule, was born in 1911, he left school when he was fourteen years old and he went straight to work. Despite this, Bob Sproule of Derry was the brightest, most intelligent person that I have ever met. His greatest joy was to find a new mind puzzle, to crack a maths problem or to solve a complex riddle. Over the years, I often wondered - where did this high intelligence come from?

‘Just’ Farmers?

My father's family had been farmers. My grandfather, also called Robert Sproule, had been born on a farm in Tullymoan, Urney, County Tyrone. As far as I knew, the family were ‘just’ farmers for generations back. (Forgive me, I was a city kid!) 

When I began to research the family history of these Sproules I had many surprises, not least of these was that I was tripping over university degrees in every generation! The farming Sproules of County Tyrone had hidden depths.

The Doctors

In the generation of my great grandfather, James Sproule of Tullymoan, I met the first doctor. James’ older brother, William John Sproule, had attended Glasgow University and graduated with an MD in 1834. William John had a short career as a doctor in the Dispensary of Dunfanaghy, County Donegal. He died in 1839, just five years after graduating.

My great grandfather, James Sproule, was the youngest child of Andrew Sproule of Tullymoan. Andrew had a brother, Samuel Sproule, who was another doctor. Samuel was born in 1774 in Tullymoan, he joined East India Company in 1797 and he went to work as a surgeon in India. Dr Samuel Sproule had a great career, rising to become head of the Medical Board of Bombay.

Another brother of Andrew of Tullymoan was William Sproule. William’s son, Samuel, attended Glasgow University in the same year as his first cousin William John in 1834. Young Samuel must have been even brighter, as he qualified as both a physician and a surgeon!

Andrew of Arnotto Bay Jamaica

Andrew of Tullymoan’s father, Andrew Senior, had a brother Robert. Robert’s son, yet another Andrew, had also attended Glasgow University where he graduated with an MA in 1775. This Andrew Sproule went straight to Jamaica where he made his fortune.

Andrew of Arnotto Bay in Jamaica died there in 1801, a long way from his origins in Urney, County Tyrone. Despite this, he never forgot his roots, and his Will contained a significant donation for the poor of the parish of Urney.

Robert Sproule, the Nabob

We are now back to 1775 with our university graduates, can we go further? Yes, we can! The wife of Andrew Senior of Tullymoan was Martha and she was also a Sproule – Sproules intermarried a lot in those days! Martha Sproule’s brother was Robert Sproule, a famous character known as 'The Nabob'. Robert the Nabob was born in 1746, he qualified as a Surgeon and he went to work in Bombay. I’m cheating a little here, as Robert the Nabob did not actually go to university. At that time, the medical education was one of apprenticeship. Robert the Nabob was apprenticed to another family member, his uncle John Sproull the Apocethary of Strabane, an eminent apocethary and surgeon of his time.

John the Apocethary

John Sproull was born in 1713 and was the son of Thomas Spreull of Golan (1685-1761). He served his time in an apothecary’s shop in Strabane, and following this, he entered the British army as a surgeon. By the 1750s John Sproull was back in Strabane where he became a pillar of the Presbyterian community. He was a member of the “Faculty of Dublin, Physicians, Surgeons and Apothecaries”, and was highly respected in the medical world, writing papers and lecturing in Dublin.
John Sproull is mentioned in a poem on the Irish medical profession by John Gilborne, first published in the Medical Review of 1775 entitled, “A poem, being a Panegyric on the Faculty of Dublin”.

“John Sproull, surgeon of fair town Strabane,
Cautions defends the patient’s back with lawn,
Before he lays his epispastic on,
To keep the blister whole, not let it run.
Cambric or lawn on such occasions wear:
‘Tis better clip your skin than rudely tear:
The force of the cantharides gets through,
And in a gentler manner comes to you.” 1

This was reprinted in The Dublin Journal of May 1840, long after John Sproull’s death. A distinguished Doctor was using the poem as evidence to support his case in an academic argument where he was disputing the invention of a new practice by a French colleague. He argued that the practice was not new, for Surgeon John Sproull of Strabane had invented it over sixty years previously!

However, in an ironic twist, John Sproull’s medical advice may have contributed to his death. This from the Abercorn Papers of 21st May 1787:

“Yesterday se'night Mr Sproull died; the Thursday before he went to see his fields, and found some boys shooting in his meadow, and trampling it; he was provoked by it, and ran after them, till he put himself in a heat, but did not complain when he came home; in the night he was seized with violent stiches and a difficulty in breathing. He insisted on having a great quantity of blood taken from him, which they think hastened him.”

Tullymoan Today

Surgeon John Sproull was five generations of Sproules away from my father, but that natural intelligence had passed safely through the generations to rest with him.

Last summer I had a very special occasion. I met my cousins, the current family of Sproules living on that same Tullymoan farm in County Tyrone. This was the first time I had met them since I was a very young child. They are elderly folk, and although much younger than my father, they are of the same generation and they have been farming there all their lives.

On the Tullymoan home farm, I had the comfort of knowing I was with welcoming family, and the joy of being in that that same twinkly eyed, intelligent company with which I was so familiar.


This article was first printed in North Irish Roots, the Journal of the North of Ireland Family History Society 2013.

1 Reprinted in the Dublin Journal May 1840
2 Letter dated 29 May 1787 from James Hamilton to the Earl of Abercorn, PRONI Reference: D623/A/47/34

Illustration - Essay on Modern Medical Education, No. 5 The Shop From Vol. 1, no. 7: Northern Looking Glass, 3rd September 1825

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