Lives of the fellows

Owen O’Rourke McCarthy

b.5 May 1928 d.19 March 2012
BA Dublin(1949) MB BCh BAO(1952) MRCP Edin(1962) MRCP(1966) FRCP Edin(1982) FRCP(1986)

A vivid memory of Owen McCarthy is at the time when we were colleagues as junior doctors at St Richard’s Hospital, Chichester. A six-year-old boy had been admitted to the children’s ward with jaundice. Owen had found a history of onset after the ingestion of broad beans. This triggered a response in Owen, who made a diagnosis of the hereditary condition favism, sometimes seen in people of Mediterranean descent. Diagnostic tests, at that time, were limited; the boy quickly recovered. Owen’s seniors were sceptical of the diagnosis, mainly because the boy’s mother – of impeccable Anglo-Saxon heritage – strongly denied any connection with the Mediterranean. Undeterred, Owen submitted a case report to a well-known London medical journal, but was met with inevitable rejection. But he had tried!

Owen McCarthy was born in Dublin, Ireland. His father, Thomas Paul McCarthy, was a barrister, and his mother was Norah Petit. His maternal grandfather had been medical superintendent of a mental asylum in County Meath, whose career Owen later documented in an unpublished account.

Educated at St Francis Xavier School, Owen entered Trinity College, Dublin, in October 1945 and graduated BA in 1949, before qualifying MB BCh BAO in 1952. After internships at the Royal City of Dublin Hospital, he was appointed as a house physician and later as a senior house officer at St Richard’s Hospital, Chichester. During his time there he acquired a lifelong interest in diseases of the chest. I was impressed with his Oslerian equanimity, his methodical approach in diagnosis, and his inherent sense of humour.

Fond of sailing, Owen decided to apply for a short service commission in the Royal Navy. In March 1955 he joined, with the rank of surgeon lieutenant. Initially he served as a medical officer on the frigate HM Loch Alvie in the Persian Gulf. He told me later, with a twinkle in his eye, how he had to deal with an infestation of cockroaches on the mess decks.

His commanding officer noted that Owen was ‘the sort of officer we need in the Naval Service’. He was accepted for a permanent commission, and spent two years expanding his knowledge of general and chest medicine on the wards of the naval hospital at Chatham. His final naval appointment was to the naval hospital in Malta.

Although graded as a medical specialist and promoted to the rank of surgeon lieutenant commander, Owen made the brave decision to resign his commission at the age of 35. He was placed on the naval retired list in October 1965.

He gained his membership of the Royal College of Physicians in January 1966, and from 1968 he was a senior registrar at the London Chest Hospital, where he worked for the next five years. He met Mary there and they were married in 1970. This was a happy time, at home, and in expanding his talents in the management of respiratory disease.

In 1973 Owen was appointed as a consultant physician to Medway and Gravesend hospitals, before making the move, in 1975, to a similar post in Newham. There he was particularly concerned with the problems of tuberculosis among the Asian immigrant population (‘Asian immigrant tuberculosis – the effect of visiting Asia.’ Brit J Dis Chest. 1984 Jul;78[3]:248-53).

On his retirement from the NHS in August 1993, Owen worked for the pneumoconiosis medical panel, considering compensation awards to ex-coal miners. It is an understatement to say that this work did not fully satisfy his medical expertise. He became interested in the history of medicine and took the diploma of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries. In 1999 he wrote a classic account of the art of percussion of the chest (‘Getting a feel for percussion.’ Vesalius 1999 Jun;5[1]:3-10). His theme was that this diagnostic method not only gave a sound, but also a sensation to the fingers of the clinician. His final publication concerned the development of the sanatorium treatment of tuberculosis in the pre-chemotherapy era (‘The key to the sanatoria.’ J R Soc Med. 2001 Aug;94[8]:413-7).

Owen and Mary enjoyed travelling abroad and visits to the West End theatres and concerts. They celebrated his 75th birthday at St Mary’s Church in Blackheath. Never one to proclaim his Catholic faith, it is still true to say that his religious convictions formed the basis of his professional life.

His interests had included skiing and sailing, but, sadly, Owen’s later years were marred by a rare type of Parkinson’s disease, which affected his mobility and interfered with visits to his beloved library at the Royal Society of Medicine in London. He died at the National Hospital, Queen Square, and was survived by his wife, Mary, their three children, Hugh, Rory and Kate, and four grandchildren.

Robin Agnew

(Volume XII, page web)

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