Lives of the fellows

Donough O'Brien

b.9 May 1923 d.16 March 2004
BA Cantab(1944) MA(1945) MB Chir(1946) DCH(1952) MRCP(1956) MRCP Edin(1956) FRCP Edin(1965) FRCP(1972)

Donough O'Brien, emeritus professor of paediatrics at the University of Colorado, USA, was a pioneer in many aspects of paediatrics. His father, Arthur John Rushton O'Brien, was director of the Colonial Medical Service and, as a result, Donough was educated at boarding schools from an early age, first at Cargilfield, outside Edinburgh, then at Rugby. He was then accepted into Clare College, Cambridge, from which he moved to St Thomas's Hospital.

After a year as house physician, he became a medical officer for the 1st Battalion Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry. The regiment was sent to Somalia at a time when the area was more peaceful than now and the privileges of colonial rule still existed. While Donough's medical duties were not difficult, his main sources of entertainment were shooting alligators and playing polo. Perhaps because of the association between alcohol and medicine, Donough's other important duty was to run the officers' bar, training that made him an impeccable host in later life.

After leaving the army, Donough turned his attention to paediatrics, which became his passion until the end of his life. He started his training as a registrar at the Institute for Child Health in January 1950, followed by a research fellowship at Harvard from 1952 to 1953. He was then a registrar at Guy's Hospital and subsequently held another research fellowship at the Hospital for Sick Children at Great Ormond Street. He finished his training when the 'brain drain' to the United States was at its height and accepted a position as assistant professor at the University of Colorado in 1957, where he stayed for the rest of his professional career, rising rapidly through the academic hierarchy to become professor in 1964. He was recruited to Colorado as an expert in the care of premature newborn infants, and his interests and research rapidly extended to microchemistry and metabolic diseases.

Donough was fortunate to have Henry Kempe as his department chairman, who gave him the stimulus and support to become both a highly regarded research scientist and a talented clinician with a worldwide reputation. His first accomplishment was to develop methods for taking and analysing micro specimens of blood from infants and children, thus avoiding the trauma of venepuncture. This work led him to develop interests in clinical chemistry, endocrinology and especially juvenile diabetes.

One of his patients was the daughter of wealthy philanthropists, Marvin and Barbara Davis. A highly productive relationship developed between the Davis family and Donough, leading to the development of the Barbara Davis Center for Juvenile Diabetes. Donough became the first director in 1980, to which he was soon able to attract pioneering scientists and clinicians. The centre is now regarded as one of the leading laboratories in the world for research into the transplantation of pancreatic islet cells, as well as being a regional and national centre for the referral of patients. Even after Donough had retired as director, he established a website for the centre with an 'ask the experts' phone number, which he frequently manned himself, that patients from all over the country would call for advice.

In addition to founding the Children's Diabetes Center, he was a founder of the John F Kennedy Child Development Center and the Pediatric Clinical Research Center.

For more than 40 years, Donough was a familiar figure around the Health Sciences Center, slightly stooped, with an unmistakable walk. His formidable eyebrows, his distinctive British accent, and highly incisive mind were perhaps intimidating to students and residents. But this exterior was only camouflage for a man who would go to any extreme to help a patient, encourage a student or stimulate a resident.

He received many honours during his life, including the University of Colorado medal, educator of the year award from the Colorado chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a special honour from the Children's Diabetes Foundation.

In 1952 Donough married Madeline Walker, the daughter of rear admiral Arthur H Walker. She survives him, as well as two sons, Rushton and Quentin, and two grandchildren. A third son, Toby, was killed in a climbing accident on Mont Blanc, a tragedy that was borne with deep and dignified fortitude.

Living in Colorado has many advantages, not least of which are fly fishing and skiing. Donough enjoyed fly fishing until deteriorating health made it impossible. He was never a skilled skier but, while his children were growing up, enjoyed the slopes and was an unforgettable figure schussing downhill while wearing a jacket and tie and a trilby hat. He was a man for whom formality and politeness were a way of life, once again a cover for a delightful sense of humour and a soft heart.

His family, which was the emotional centre of his life, remember him with affection and some amusement, as a self reliant who believed he could mend or work any device and even do minor surgery on his children. Whether the project was changing the oil in his car, fixing the washing machine, building a summer home, or working the mass spectrometer in his laboratory, he always felt that he could master the problem and do the job by himself.

Classical music, the arts and good books were constant intellectual companions that became even more important as advancing years began to take their toll. But nothing could take the place of his love of family, his enduring interest in medicine and the care of his patients.

His administrative, teaching and medical skills helped thousands of children and an endowed research fellowship in his name will assure the continuation of his influence and memory.

Bruce C Paton

[Brit.med.J.,2004,329,115; The Denver Post 15 April 2004; Children's Diabetes Center Newsletter Summer 2004]

(Volume XI, page 426)

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