James Farrell McDermott was born in Cork City, County Cork, Ireland on 19 July 1876, the eldest son of Charles William and Agnes Theresa McDermott (née Ahern). The family originally lived at Eldred Terrace, South Douglas Road, Cork. His father was a former Board of Trade Superintendent at Cork.
James McDermott qualified as a doctor at the University College, Cork in 1905 and took the MB, BCh and BAO of the Royal University of Ireland in 1906.
He first sailed as a ship's surgeon for the Pacific Steam Navigation Company and having transferred to the Cunard Steam Ship Company, his first ship was the
Umbria. He then transferred to the Caronia and it was on board this vessel in 1908 that he and the rest of the crew were involved in the rescue and treatment of the victims of the Messina earthquake, the
Caronia being one of the first vessels to enter the Straits after the disaster occurred. Following service on the
Saxonia and the Ivernia, he joined the Mauretania just after the outbreak of war and after she was laid up he was transferred to the
Olonia and sailed to India to transport troops of the British Army from Bombay to Egypt and France. After further service on the
Bologna and the Andania, he joined the Lusitania in early 1915.
Because of his work on the passenger liners, by this time he and his family had moved to 42 Radnor Drive, Wallasey, Cheshire, England across the River Mersey from Liverpool. There James McDermott was a Freemason and a prominent member of Israel Lodge number 1502.
He engaged for what became the Lusitania's final voyage on 12 April 1915 at Liverpool at a daily rate of pay of £0-16s-0d (£0.80). It was the third time he had sailed on the ship. The
Lusitania’s regular surgeon was Doctor John Pointon, and McDermott only engaged for this voyage because Pointon was ill.
The Lusitania left Liverpool on the morning of 17 April 1915 and reached New York on 24 April. She left on her return voyage just after midday on 1 May. Six days later, on the afternoon of 7 May, she was torpedoed 12 miles off the coast of southern Ireland by the German submarine U-20, and sank just 18 minutes later. At that stage of her voyage she was only 250 miles from the safety of her home port.
In an account of the sinking printed in 'The New York Times' on 2 June 1915 Isaac Lehman, an export broker from New York travelling as a saloon passenger on board the ship stated:
I walked up to B deck and met my steward - by the name of Barnes - on the way, and told him to get me a life preserver. I waited for him to get this and he put it on for me, saying that it would come in handy. I walked out on B deck and met the ship's doctor and the ship's purser, who told me there was not a chance for the boat to go down, that I should remain calm, and I was foolish to have my life preserver on. However, I did not take very much notice of this outside of the fact I laughed at them and said it was better to be prepared if anything did happen. This was the last that I saw of these men. I understand they have been drowned.
Surgeon McDermott was indeed drowned, or killed when the ship went down. He was aged 38 years.His body was recovered from the sea and landed at Queenstown, where it was given the reference number 200 in one of Queenstown's makeshift mortuaries and described as:
"Dr. F. J. McDermott, Fleet Surgeon.
Property. Receipt for 71 Marconi wireless shares, Certificates of shares, 500 The Ren. Syndicate Ltd. 2 £5 Bank of England Notes, 1 £1 Treasury Note, draft for £2, 2 from Messrs. Coutts & Co. leather book, some papers, receipt for £200, 2 half pennies, 1 shilling and fountain pen, 1 book."
On 17 May 1915 Dr McDermott was buried in a private grave in The Old Church Cemetery, two miles north of Queenstown, in Row 15, Grave 4, and later re-numbered Grave 474.
There was no headstone on his grave until 85 years after his death. In the year 2000, following representations by the author to The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which was initially unaware that Surgeon McDermott had a known grave, the Commission erected a headstone over his final resting place. It follows the normal Commission pattern and in keeping with other stones in the cemetery, is made from grey marble and bears, over a Christian cross, the inscription:
7TH MAY 1915 AGE 38"
The MM stands for Mercantile Marine.
Obviously after such a passage of time it was not possible to add a private or family inscription beneath the cross. His body is buried next to two other Lusitania victims, second cabin passengers Ernest Thomas and the Reverend James Anderson Beattie, who were both travelling to England from Canada.
As the Commission had believed that he had no known grave, Dr McDermott was commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial to the Missing of the Mercantile Marine, in London. The Commission has now amended his entry in the memorial register to show his actual burial place and has stated that should it ever be necessary to re-cast the relevant bronze panel on the memorial, his name will be omitted from its replacement.
He is also commemorated on a bronze roll of honour dedicated to freemasons from Liverpool lodges that were killed in the Great War, at the Masonic Hall in Hope Street, Liverpool.
Irish newspaper 'The Cork Examiner' said of him on Wednesday 12 May 1915:
"He was a man of fine appearance and great charm of manner, and was very well liked by the officers and crew of the Lusitania and other ships of the Cunard Line, on which he had been doctor."
The property recovered from his body mentioned above was handed to his father, Charles McDermott, at the family home in Wallasey on 3 June 1915.
Administration of his estate was granted to a Mr McDermott, probably his father, at Chester on 7 July 1915. His effects amounted to £1,100-6s-0d (£1,100.30).
The "steward by the name of Barnes" mentioned in Isaac Lehman’s account was First Class Bedroom Steward William Barnes who lived in Albion Street, Wallasey, not too far away from Surgeon McDermott‘s home. He survived the sinking and eventually made it back home. The "ship's purser" mentioned was James Alexander McCubbin, who came from Bootle, on the outskirts of Liverpool. He, like McDermott, perished in the sinking.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1911 English Census, 1901 Census of Ireland, British Medical Journal, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Cork Examiner, Cunard Records, Geoff Cuthill, J. Kontzle, James Maggs, New York Times, Probate Records, UniLiv.D92/1/8-11, UniLiv D92/11, Wallasey News, (Photo 15/05/15), Wallasey & Wirral Chronicle, White Star Journal, PRO BT 334.