Research Subjects: Biographies

Not One in Ten Thousand Know Your Name: the Officers of the British 1st Battalion of Detachments in 1809 -- Surgeon Edmund O’Leary, 52nd Foot

By Robert Burnham and Ron McGuigan


Some sources give his name as Edward.

Edmund O’Leary was born in 1783 or 1784 in Ireland.  He graduated from the University of Edinburgh on 24 June 1803, with a degree of Doctor of Medicine.  In addition to studies, he had to write a dissertation in order to graduate.  His topic was phthisi pulmonali, better known as tuberculosis.[1]

After graduation from medical school, was commissioned as a hospital mate in the 52nd Foot.  On 15 August 1805, he was promoted to assistant surgeon in the regiment.[2]  He deployed with the 1st Battalion 52nd Foot, to Portugal in August 1808 and was present at Vimeiro.  Edmund O’Leary did not deploy with the regiment when it marched into Spain in November and thus missed the Corunna Campaign.  In February, along with two other surgeons from the 52nd Foot (George Peach and John Williams), he was attached to the 1st Battalion of Detachments.  Assistant Surgeon O’Leary was only with the 1st Battalion of Detachments for a month, before returning to England.[3]

Assistant Surgeon O’Leary was not with the regiment for many months after he returned to England.  However, by March 1810, he had reported to the 2nd Battalion 52nd Foot, at Lewes in East Sussex.[4]  The next year he left Portsmouth with the battalion on 26 January when they sailed for Portugal.  They arrived at Lisbon on 6 March, after a five week voyage.  He would stay with the 2nd Battalion until November 1811, when he returned to England.[5]  He was not attached to either battalion during much of 1812.  In October 1812, he was promoted to surgeon in the 2nd Battalion 47th Foot, with a date of rank of 15 October 1812.[6]  

The 2nd Battalion 47th Foot had been stationed in Cadiz, Spain since 1810.  In October 1812, they received orders to join Pringle’s Brigade in the 5th Division. Surgeon O’Leary would join the battalion in Portugal in March 1813.  As the battalion’s surgeon, he would treat their casualties during the battles of Vitoria, San Sebastian, Nive, and Bayonne.[7]  On 26 May 1814, he was promoted to Physician to the Forces and would stay in Southern France until July.[8] Napoleon’s abdication did not bring the end of war for Edmund O’Leary.  In October 1814, he and Surgeon John Williams (with whom he had served with in the 52nd Foot and the 1st Battalion of Detachments) were sent to Canada.[9]  He would only stay in Canada until February 1815, when he returned to England.[10]

Within a year, Edmund O’Leary would be stationed overseas, this time in Mauritius.  He was there at least a year, but went on half-pay within a few years.[11]  On 14 February 1822, Edmund O’Leary was brought back onto full pay as a physician to the forces and a MD.[12]  He was assigned as the chief medical officer at the Albany Barracks on the Isle of Wight.  The barracks had a hospital that could hold 126 patients.  Doctor O’Leary died a short time after reporting there, on 27 June 1823.  He was 39 years old.[13]


[1]Gentleman’s Magazine July – December 1823, p. 93; Edinburgh Medical, p. 390

[2] London Gazette: 20 August 1805

[3] Challis

[4] Army Lists: November 1811

[5] Challis

[6] London Gazette: 20 October 1812

[7] Challis

[8] London Gazette: 31 May 1814

[9] Army Lists: October 1814

[10] Sutherland: p. 106

[11] Army Lists: January and December 1816

[12] London Gazette: 23 February 1822

[13] Gentleman’s Magazine 1823: p. 93;  White, William: p. 184

Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2009

Not One in Ten Thousand Know Your Name: the Officers of the British 1st Battalion of Detachments in 1809 ]

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