The Dublin University Biological Association – traditionally known as “The Bi”, more recently known as Biosoc – is the society of medical students at Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin.
Biosoc is the leading social and academic society for medics within the College, and is one of the largest and oldest in Ireland, having been established in 1874, and boasting an annual membership of over 850 undergraduates. It is currently in its 149th Session.
Medical societies have existed at Trinity 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. It is clear from the surviving records that these esteemed professors took an active role in the running of the society, which speaks to the high regard to which it was held by its 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, and 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.
Dr Macalister, the first president of the association, began his medical studies in the RCSI at the 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. Since then, presidents of the association have continued to be leaders in their fields, guiding and supporting the association.
Early topics of discussion in the Biological Association included whether fish can hear and whether the existence of the human appendix proves 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 several years, 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.
Medical topics of discussion remained at the cutting edge and included presentations on new forms of hernia and prostate surgery, and notably, exhibitions of x-ray specimens just months after their discovery by William Roentgen. In 1897 the Association introduced a public health campaign for clean milk, given the prevalence of tuberculosis in cows’ milk at the time.
In 1880, a medal was introduced for the best paper delivered during 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 began to admit women as members in 1929, decades before other large societies such as the Hist and the Phil. Recently, the main address of the 143rd Inaugural Meeting was 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, the first woman to be president of the association, to celebrate 40 years since her election.
It is clear from the records that awareness of the social impact of medicine was reflected in the topics of debate over the years. In 1967 a large debate organised with the Law Society, the Theological Society, and the UCD Medical Society, saw a large majority voting to support the termination of pregnancy under certain circumstances. Social events also became increasingly prevalent in 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.
A lot has changed since the early days of the Association. Our annual Med Ball is attended by 600 students every year, and our social activities extend into sporting events like ‘Med Cup’, our annual Christmas trip, and various themed nights out throughout the term. Broader events include our several Careers Nights, academic talks, intervarsity events, and our Medicine Through The Arts night. Additionally, the Association has a large charity arm in the form of Trinity Med Day. This subcommittee organises 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. Every year, Med Day raises over €50,000 for causes in Trinity teaching hospitals.