Lives of the fellows

Dermod De La Chevallerie MacCarthy

b.15 March 1911 d.12 July 1986
MRCS LRCP(1934) MB BS Lond(1937) MD(1940) DCH(1940) MRCP(1943) FRCP(1958)

Dermod MacCarthy was a paediatrician, best known for his efforts to encourage mothers to be with their children in hospital. His father, Sir Desmond MacCarthy, was the foremost literary and dramatic critic of his day: familiar with all the notables of that era, such as Shaw, Wells, Chesterton, Bennett and Belloc, and at a later date with those of ‘the Bloomsbury set’. His mother Mollie Warre Cornish was the daughter of the vice-provost of Eton, and the author of a highly entertaining book, A Nineteenth-century childhood, 1924. Both parents feature prominently in memoirs of their times; Desmond because of the legendary charm of his conversation, and Mollie for what one contemporary decribed as ‘her varnish of conformity which concealed an original and unexpected response that was close to genius’.

Dermod was educated at Gresham’s School, Holt, where W H Auden and Benjamin Britten were among his schoolfellows. From Gresham’s he went straight to medical school at Bart’s, qualifying in 1934. Between house jobs he signed on as ship’s doctor for a voyage to the Far East. He had early decided to devote himself to children’s medicine, and the start of the war in 1939 found him working at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, where he became resident assistant physician; and when the bombing of London began he was responsible for evacuating the children from Great Ormond Street to outlying hospitals. In 1942 he joined the RNVR and served as surgeon lieutenant until 1946. An interest in meteorology was a by-product of that service and was later a useful asset in his sailing.

When the NHS was set up in 1948 paediatrics in this country (the word was then hardly in use) was still poorly developed. Fortunate was that generation of paediatricians who found themselves with the responsibility for the setting up of children’s units across the country. McCarthy was appointed consultant paediatrician to a group of hospitals in Buckinghamshire, centred on Aylesbury, and here he worked until his retirement in 1976.

People tend to divide themselves into two sorts - those whose natures are predominately practical, and those with the gifts of imagination and intuition that we usually associate with the artist. Medicine seems to attract mainly practical people and it is comparatively rare to find a doctor with the temperament of the artist. McCarthy was in this sense an artist. His understanding of his child patients was exceptional, as was his insight into the impulses and emotions of their parents. In the view of some of his peers, he was the ‘compleat’ paediatrician. When, in the 1950s, a movement arose to liberalize the arrangements then customary for children in hospital wards (visiting by parents was restricted, or even forbidden) it was inevitable that he should come to the fore. He helped James Robertson to make the second of two influential films: Going to hospital with mother, which was filmed in the children’s ward at Amersham Hospital, and when the National Association for the Welfare of Children in Hospital was formed he became its friend and adviser.

McCarthy’s influence was also strong in bringing together clinical paediatrics and child psychiatry, not necessarily the easiest of bedfellows, and he was successful in moving effectively in both these fields. In 1974 he was president of the paediatric section of the Royal Society of Medicine; while he was also consultant paediatrician to the Institute of Child Psychology in London and convened the paediatric discussion group which met regularly at Anna Freud’s home in Hampstead. His influence extended abroad and in 1975 he was elected president of the Confederation of European Societies of Paediatricians.

A clinical problem particularly apposite to his skills was that of growth retardation, sometimes seen in children who are the victims of a disturbed family environment. He made some of the first observations on this condition (psycho-social deprivation or PSD, as it came to be known) and wrote an extended and authoritative account of it in Scientific Foundations of paediatrics, ed. John A Davis and John Dobbing, Philadelphia, Saunders, c.1974.

His influence on his contemporaries and juniors was great, surprisingly so perhaps as he wrote comparatively little. It was this influence that came to be recognized by his colleagues when, in 1982, the British Paediatric Association awarded him its highest honour - the James Spence medal.

In 1947 he had married Marie-France Geoffroy-Dechaume, who had gained the Croix-de-Guerre for her work in the French Resistance. They had known one another from childhood and Dermod was never able to explain to himself why he had taken so long (he was then 36) to realize that here was his ideal partner. Hilaire Belloc, himself half French, had been a sailing companion and a formative influence in his youth, so the marriage enriched his already strong affection for all things French. From then on, family holidays in Brittany were often to be happily dovetailed with his participation in French medical meetings. Lear House, their home in Weedon overlooking the Vale of Aylesbury, was one which their countless friends were always hoping to find some good excuse to visit. After retirement he continued to be in demand as a lecturer, and he was also able to pursue a lifelong love of sailing and to paint.

What will his friends remember him for? His charm, an inheritance from his father, his wit: ‘Take care, I think they’re going to gybe!’ as we were walking behind a pair of Dutch nuns with large, starched, sail-like coifs; his enviable ability to recall his early childhood and the literary circles in which he had been brought up? Fortunately something, or all, of these qualities are preserved in his book Sailing with Mr Belloc, written and prepared for publication just before his death. Dermod McCarthy must be counted fortunate among mortals for he was richly endowed with notable talents, and was given the means to put them to good effect.

DMT Gairdner

[Brit.med.J., 1986,293,396,511; Lancet, 1986,2,234; The Times, 15 July 1986; Arch.of Diseases in Childhood, 1982,57,565-66]

(Volume VIII, page 300)

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