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Surgical great receives Lifetime Award

07 Nov 2014

Cork paediatric surgeon Prof Barry O’Donnell was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at last night’s Irish Healthcare Awards in Dublin.

A graduate of UCC (1949), his postgraduate training included posts at Great Ormond Street, London, and the famous Lahey Clinic, Boston, and the Boston Floating Hospital for Infants and Children.

When he returned to Ireland in 1957 at the age of 29 he took up a consultant post at Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin – a position he held until 1993. He was the only dedicated paediatric surgeon at the hospital for his first nine years, and recalls carrying out 1,100 operations in a single year.

He was appointed the first Professor of Paediatric Surgery in Ireland in 1986 by the RCSI – a College he was later to lead as President (1998-2000).

Prof O’Donnell was also, uniquely, President of the British, Canadian and Irish Medical Associations at the same time (1976-1977) – an honour never before or since repeated.

He was also President of the British Association of Paediatric Surgeons and was awarded its highest honour, the Denis Browne medal, along with the Hunterian Professorship of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, and the urology medal of the American Academy of Pediatrics – the first paediatric surgeon outside the US to be so honoured.

A former Chairman of the British Medical Journal from 1982 to 1988, and a visiting professor to many US universities, including Harvard, Prof O’Donnell ranks the founding of the National Children’s Research Centre in 1965 at Crumlin among his proudest achievements. This was the first dedicated research centre on the site of any Irish hospital.

In terms of his own research, his name will always be synonymous with the innovation of endoscopic correction of vesicoureteric reflux – the Subureteric Teflon Injection, or Sting – that was developed with the help of Prof Prem Puri. The procedure was a real breakthrough: it cut a two-and-a-half hour operation, with a 10-day hospital stay, down to just 15 minutes as a day case. In 1984, both doctors received a National ‘People of the Year’ award for their discovery.

In Irish Surgeons and Surgery in the Twentieth Century, the 2008 book edited by Prof O’Donnell, Prof Frank Keane, in the foreword, described this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner as a “renaissance Bob Hope”, but at the same time someone with a “sharp political nous and commitment, scientifically sound and yet devoted to his craft”.

And like the aforementioned US comedian, Prof O’Donnell certainly knows how to enthral an audience, holding those gathered at the Shelbourne Hotel last night in the palm of his hand. “I am happy to be here with you tonight. But at the age of 88, I’m happy to be anywhere.”

Graciously accepting what he jokingly termed as this “almost posthumous award”, Prof O’Donnell paid a particular tribute to his wife of 55 years, Mary, without whom he said he could not have achieved all that he did throughout his long career.

Dara Gantly

Click here to view the full article which appeared in Irish Medical Times