Lives of the fellows

Desmond Adrian Canavan

b.13 February 1938 d.5 December 2004 MB BCh BAO Belf(1961) MRCPI(1964) MD(1966) MRCP(1967) FRCP Edin(1966) MRCP(1967) FRCP(1979) FRCPI(1986)

Desmond Canavan served as president of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland (RCPI) from 2000 to 2003, a period of remarkable development in its activities, influence and status. ‘Des’ Canavan was appointed as a consultant in general medicine with a specialist expertise in infectious diseases to the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, in 1997 and practised there until his retirement in 2003.

Des was born Whitehouse, County Antrim, into a medical family, his father James being a general practitioner. His school education was undertaken at St Malachy’s College in Belfast, from where he entered Queen’s University to study medicine. He had a brilliant undergraduate career, winning several university and Mater Infirmorum Hospital awards, including the O’Connell gold medal, and achieved first place in his graduation examinations in 1961.

Des’ early years as a doctor were spent at the Mater Hospital and while there he became a member of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland in 1964. Soon after, in 1966, Des was awarded an MD by Queen’s University for his original research on the life cycle of the parasite responsible for schistosomiasis, under the supervision of Graham Bull [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.65]. And so began his career-long association with infectious diseases and his particular interest in the infective diarrhoeas and malaria in Ireland.

In 1968 Des was appointed as a consultant physician to the Purdysburn Fever Hospital (now Belvoir Park Hospital), Belfast. He was highly respected and was appointed chairman of the medical staff. In 1997 the decision was made to move services to the Royal Victoria Hospital, and so Des moved from a highly specialised atmosphere to a general hospital. For the infectious diseases specialist this move posed challenges, which he overcame, and provided opportunities, which he exploited. He successfully established himself as one of the ‘go to’ consultants for colleagues faced with complex diagnostic problems.

Desmond Canavan was admitted to the fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians of London in 1979 and in 1986 became a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland. Subsequently he served as clinical examiner for the membership examination of both colleges.

In 1993 Des was elected to the council of RCPI and from then until his premature death in 2004 he contributed in a major manner to the life of the college. From 1993 to 1995 he filled the position of censor, and in 1996 he was appointed director of examinations. Des presided over revisions in the format of the membership examination to insure it met high international standards in terms of objectivity, consistency and overall validity. Under his guidance, the availability of the membership examination expanded greatly nationally and internationally.

In 2000 Desmond Canavan was elected unopposed to the presidency of RCPI. Two themes dominated his presidency – developing higher training programmes and preparing the college for a period of comprehensive restoration. His tenure saw the delivery of highly structured specialist training programmes leading to certification in all the medical sub-specialties and in the specialties of obstetrics and gynaecology, paediatrics, pathology, public health medicine and occupational health. Sadly, Des did not live to see the realisation of the plans advanced by him for the renovation and refurbishment of the college, which were completed in 2006.

During a meeting of the Association of Physicians of Great Britain and Ireland in 1959 in Cardiff two Irish endocrinologists met, one, Ivo Drury, was from Dublin and the other, Desmond A D Montgomery [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.400], was from Belfast. This was during a period of little communication between the cities, leading to a profound psychological separation and the men had little knowledge of one another. They appreciated that this reality was wholly unfortunate, even if only viewed from a medical perspective. They agreed to establish an organisation of physicians drawing equally from the two jurisdictions of Ireland that would be dedicated to support cross border scientific co-operation, collaboration and friendships. The new body would meet annually, rotating between north and south. Thus the Corrigan Club was formed, which met for the first time in 1960 in Dublin. The club eponymously honours the Dublin physician Sir Dominic Corrigan, whose name is also used to identify the pulse form characteristic of aortic incompetence, which he described early in the 19th century. In 1992 Desmond Canavan was elected secretary-treasurer of the club, a position he occupied until 1998. During this period the club continued to flourish, and may have enjoyed its most active phase. This experience contributed to Des’ vision of nurturing a strong links between north and south while he was president of the RCPI.

In 1964 Des married Nuala Molloy, whom he met when she was nursing in the Mater Hospital. Nuala was a very welcome, frequent presence, supporting Des in the demanding role of president of the RCPI. He was a man of distinguished bearing, tall, bearded, unfailingly welcoming and courteous. Des’ gentle, persuasive ways achieved more than most of those employing more confrontational strategies. Des died after a relatively short illness just 14 months after he demitted office. He was survived by Nuala and their daughters, Anne, an anaesthetist, and Marie Theresa, a nurse.

T Joseph McKenna

[The Irish Times 18 December 2004 – accessed 11 April 2016]

(Volume XII, page web)

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