Lives of the fellows

Denis Kenry O'Donovan

b.26 July 1909 d.28 February 2004
MB BCh BAO NUI(1934) MSc(1935) PhD McGill(1938) FRCP(1963) MD DSc FRCPI

Denis Kenry (‘D K’) O’Donovan was a true colossus of Irish medicine – expert clinician, endocrinologist, medical educationalist and pioneering researcher, as well as a dedicated mentor to many. When he died at his desk in his 95th year he had borne witness and contributed to not only extraordinary events in the development of medicine in Ireland, but also to the epic historical political events in his native land, to which he had huge patriotic devotion.

He was born in County Limerick and was educated by the Vincentian Fathers at Castleknock College in Dublin. There he honed not only his outstanding scholastic aptitude, but also his sporting achievements, the latter including captaining the college’s winning Leinster schools rugby team and capturing the title of junior boxing champion of Leinster. He then joined a cohort of students who were the last entrants to John Henry Newman’s Catholic University Medical School in St Cecilia Street, Dublin, the nursery of many of the future leaders of Irish medicine. Described later by his own professor of medicine P N Meenan as “the outstanding graduate of his generation”, he was awarded virtually every medal, award and bursary during his undergraduate career, culminating in securing first place in his graduating class of 1934 with first class honours.

After taking his MSc, he pursued his postgraduate career at the highest possible level, working at McGill University in Montreal under the tutelage of the legendary J B Collip [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.81] during the exciting period of the development and production of insulin. He was awarded a PhD magna cum laude in 1938, at a time when virtually no other medically qualified Irish academic had achieved such a distinction. Later he was to accumulate an extraordinary array of awards, degrees and fellowships, including the MD and DSc (from the National University of Ireland) and fellowships of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland and of our College.

From Montreal he returned to University College Dublin (UCD) and his beloved St Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin, and rapidly ascended the academic and clinical leadership ladder, eventually becoming senior professor of medicine at UCD (1958), dean of the faculty of medicine (from 1965 to 1973) and a member of the UCD governing authority. He was responsible for radical curricular reform and, most of all, translating his research accomplishments back into Ireland in a practical way. He established the UCD Medical Research Institute at Woodview on the UCD campus and, at a national level, he was chairman of the Medical Research Council of Ireland. He frequently represented Ireland at international medical conferences and was a dedicated attender at the annual Medical Pilgrims meetings in the UK and further afield.

As a consultant endocrinologist he introduced many innovative services at an inpatient and outpatient level at St Vincent’s Hospital and mentored many future leaders in Irish endocrinology in his unit there. He also played a critical role in founding the Irish Endocrine Society and the UK Endocrine Society.

But it is for his extraordinary and formidable character, personality and teaching style that generations of medical students at UCD and postgraduates at St Vincent’s Hospital will remember him. His exacting standards set an extraordinarily challenging benchmark for high-achieving students. By the same token, this caused generations of final year medical classes to quake, transfixed by the way he could scan an entire class and then, with a menacing click of his fingers, point to one fear-gripped student who then bore the brunt of the ensuing Socratic interrogation. But that austere methodology and fearsome reputation was only one dimension of O’Donovan’s personality. At heart he was fundamentally kind, possessed a dry and often underappreciated wit, and he always displayed a real and empathic concern for his individual patients.

At a personal level, he was an extraordinary man who lived in extraordinary times and witnessed extraordinary events. Few among his colleagues knew that at the age of 11, in his home town of Castleconnell in County Limerick, he directly witnessed the brutal murder of his father who was summarily executed outside his house by members of the notorious ‘Auxies’ – the auxiliary division of the Royal Irish Constabulary on 17 April 1921 during the Irish War of Independence. It is reputed that so disturbed was King George V and parliamentarians in Britain by this horrific event, it became an important contributory element in securing the truce in the Anglo-Irish war some three months later.

But ‘D K’ possessed no bitterness or rancour. Indeed, he subsequently married his lifelong partner, Phyllis Gill, who came from a long-established English Quaker family. They had five talented daughters (many of them accomplished musicians) and two sons, Michael and Donough, both of whom entered the medical profession. In his spare time he had an extraordinary selection of eclectic pursuits, from gardening and farming activities at his country residence near Lough Derg in County Tipperary, to anthropology and most of all to rugby football, hurling and National Hunt Racing. Even in his long retirement he frequently attended the annual meetings of the Medical Pilgrims, to which he was devoted and where he had developed many lifelong personal friendships with UK colleagues, most of whom he was destined to outlive. It was these immense achievements and complexities in his character that contributed to his enduring legacy among generations of undergraduates and postgraduates. Few will quibble with his ranking as one of the most influential and pioneering figures in 20th century Irish medicine, education and research.

Muiris X FitzGerald

[The Endocrinologist No.74, Winter 2004/5;The Irish Times 27 March 2004]

(Volume XII, page web)

<< Back to List