Lives of the fellows

Brian McNicholl

b.11 November 1920 d.21 January 2008
MB BCh BAO NUI(1943) MD(1946) DCH(1946) FRCP(1970).

Brian McNicholl was professor of paediatrics at University College, Galway. He was born in Cork, Ireland, the youngest of five sons. His parents met in Warrington, Lancashire, and moved to Cork in 1919. The McNicholl family, some generations earlier, had immigrated to England from near Maghera, County Derry, and his mother (née Kelleher) was originally from County Cork. Following schooling at the Christian Brothers College, Cork, and Newbridge College, County Kildare, Brian studied medicine at University College, Cork, graduating with honours in 1943. Three years later, he received his MD and diploma in child health, and decided to specialise in paediatrics. His early training in the specialty was obtained in Nottingham, Manchester and later London, where he served as senior resident medical officer at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children and as senior paediatric registrar at Charing Cross Hospital.

In 1952, he was awarded the Ainsworth travelling fellowship by University College, Cork, and used it to work at the Children’s Medical Center in Boston and at the newborn unit at Boston Lying-in Hospital. Concurrently, he held a research fellowship at Harvard Medical School.

In 1954, he was appointed consultant paediatrician at the regional hospital, Galway. At about this time he married Joan Daly, the beginning of a truly happy marriage. Joan had grown up on the shores of Lough Mask near Ballinrobe, in a house once inhabited by Captain Boycott, the British land agent famously ostracised by the local community in 1880. She had trained as a domestic science instructor and was, among many other skills, an accomplished cook.

Brian’s appointment to Galway was the first of a consultant paediatrician in the Republic of Ireland, outside of Dublin and Cork. He was single-handed for the first 10 years and the only children’s specialist in the west of Ireland. He travelled twice monthly to do outpatient clinics at Castlebar, County Mayo, an event he described as “going to the Mayo Clinic”. Being constantly on call had its problems. A keen golfer and a member of Galway Golf Club, he was used to stopping during a round at a point opposite to his own house. If he was required urgently, Joan would hang a red towel from an upstairs window. A non-urgent call was signalled by a white one!

Brian’s consuming clinical interest was in paediatric gastroenterology and especially malabsorption syndromes. At the time of his appointment and subsequently, the west of Ireland had one of the highest incidences of coeliac disease in the world, a situation which Brian ascribed to the almost total dependence on the potato for nourishment in the past by its poverty-stricken denizens and a consequent vulnerability to wheat gluten. Armed with the newly available investigative tool of jejunal biopsy, and also in association with his colleagues in adult medicine, he began to publish his research findings frequently and widely, thereby gaining an international reputation for his work.

He was also concerned about the welfare of children and adults with mental disabilities and, in 1962, he was one of the founder members of the Galway Association for Mentally Handicapped Children. His wife Joan was also involved in work for the handicapped, something for which she later received a papal honour.

University College, Galway, a constituent college of the National University of Ireland, established a department of paediatrics in 1967. Having been a lecturer in the college from 1959, Brian was appointed its first professor in 1968. In the same year, he acted for two months as visiting professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, USA. He was dean of the medical faculty in Galway from 1970 to 1973. During his career he served on various research boards and government committees, was president of the Irish Paediatric Association and of the Irish and American Paediatric Society and was an honorary fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. He was elected fellow of the London and Irish Colleges of Physicians. He was a regular attendee at meetings of the British Paediatric Association (BPA) and served on its committee from 1979 to 1982. He won the BPA golf trophy (the Ulster Cup) on two occasions.

Although outwardly rather reserved, his underlying wit, warmth and kindness won him many friends and he and Joan entertained frequently in the house which had been designed by his architect brother and which had a memorable view of the Clare hills across the great sweep of Galway Bay. On these occasions, he liked to demonstrate his knowledge and love of wine. He loved literature, art and music, and accumulated a fine collection of 20th century Irish art. Early in his collecting, when he lived in London, he became aware of the quality of Roderic O’Conor’s work and acquired three superb examples of his paintings. O’Conor, who had worked with Gauguin in Brittany, was relatively unappreciated at the time but is now regarded as the outstanding Irish Impressionist painter of the 20th century.

Another of Brian’s loves was the landscape of Connemara. He bought a cottage near Renvyle during the sixties, and he and his family became completely devoted to it. He claimed, with some justification, that it had one of the finest views in Europe, looking northwards along the magnificent coastline to Achill Island, nearly 100 miles away. With this cottage as a base, he fished most of the Connemara rivers and lakes, usually with great success. After his retirement he continued to fish and play golf, and also found time to write a novel, under a pseudonym, set in revolutionary times in Ireland in the early 20th century.

The writer had the privilege of a deep and lasting friendship with Brian. In the 1980s, before our respective retirements as paediatricians, we “took in each other’s washing”, meaning that we acted as each other’s external examiners, he in Trinity College, Dublin, and I at University College, Galway. On one occasion, my wife and I had the unusual experience of eating for dinner the salmon which Brian had caught very early that morning at the Weir in Galway City. Our friendship deepened after our two wives died within eight months of each other, in 1997 and 1998. Joan McNicholl succumbed to a lingering and dreadful motor neurone disease. Brian and I studied cookery together in a famous County Cork cookery school; both wives had been excellent cooks. We also travelled abroad and, of course, spent many pleasant hours in his Connemara cottage.

Brian was deservedly proud of his family. His two sons (Brian and Ian) are, respectively, an accident and emergency consultant and an architect. His two daughters (Janet and Rachel) are an immunologist (with Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta) and a linguist and translator.

Niall V O’Donohoe

[The Irish Times 15 March 2008]

(Volume XII, page web)

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