Lives of the fellows

Timothy Brendan Counihan

b.6 February 1923 d.24 January 2016
MB BCh BAO University College Cork(1947) MD(1952) FRCP(1970) FACC FRCPI

Tim Counihan was professor of medicine at University College Dublin, and a consultant physician and cardiologist to the Mater Misericordiae Hospital. He was the only child of James Counihan, the postmaster in Killarney, County Kerry, in southwest Ireland, and Katherine Mary Counihan née O’Neill. By all accounts he was a bright child, and won a number of academic scholarships over the years. Tuberculosis was endemic at the time, and Tim’s father was keen to minimise his only son’s exposure to it. He sought out a small farmer with a ‘clean’ cow, and made arrangements for his son to have priority to that particular cow’s milk. As time passed, a rumour began to spread that Tim’s academic prowess was related to something in the milk, and a small queue developed every morning as other parents sought some milk from ‘the Counihan cow’. Whether it was due to the milk or not, Tim ended up with a county scholarship to study medicine at University College Cork, from which he graduated in 1947 with first place and a first class honours degree.

In 1948 Tim worked as a research assistant in the cardiac department at the London Hospital under Sir John Parkinson [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.443] and William Evans [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.146]. Thereafter, he took up a position as a clinical research fellow in medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston under the supervision of Paul Dudley White [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.457]. The two developed a close and lasting friendship; Dudley White later delivered a landmark lecture in Dublin at Tim’s invitation, who was by then professor of medicine at University College Dublin. Paul Dudley White had been General Eisenhower’s personal physician, so his visit to Dublin attracted considerable national attention, including an audience with the then president of Ireland, Éamon de Valera.

Tim completed his training in cardiology by returning to London to Hammersmith Hospital between 1951 and 1955, where he worked as a registrar to John McMichael [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.341] and John Goodwin [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.226]. Whilst at Hammersmith, several of Tim’s research endeavours attracted considerable interest. He made important observations on hypertension in association with coarctation of the aorta. Tim was also interested in the physics of laminar flow, particularly in how a partial (atheromatous) constriction induced turbulence, and the potential for thromboembolism. His observations on flow dynamics resulted in him being asked to advise the Royal Navy on torpedo head structure development. But it was a casual remark that Tim made during a rather futile experimental attempt at coronary angioscopy (fibreoptic technology was in its infancy) that ultimately resulted in one of the standout medical technological advances of the 20th century. After the attempts at visualising the coronary arteries fibreoptically had been abandoned, he remarked to a colleague that such a device would be ‘a gastroenterologist’s prayer’! Tim’s contribution to the development of modern endoscopy was subsequently acknowledged in a letter to the editor of Gastroenterology (Henley KS. ‘History of fiberoptic endoscopy.’ 1980 May;78[5 Pt 1]:1123-4).

In 1957, Tim was appointed professor of medicine at the Mater Hospital and University College Dublin, where he remained until his retirement in 1988. During these years he was actively involved in the activities of the Royal Colleges of Physicians, both of London and of Ireland.

Tim was most proud of his involvement with the Association of Physicians of Great Britain and Ireland, of which he was the first Irish president, elected in 1981. As president-elect, he and my mother, Mary (née Powell), were honoured to be introduced to the Prince of Wales, at a reception during the 1980 London meeting. As befits many of these occasions, conversation between the Prince and the medics was a little stilted, until the intervention of my mother. The Prince, on hearing that she hailed from Cork, asked if Cork was dry stone wall country. My mum, a keen royal-watcher and horse racing aficionado, corrected the Prince with ‘Ditches, your Royal Highness’. Thereafter, Mary offered the Prince her opinion on suitable horses for him to ride; the Prince took out a small black notebook and began to take notes. I believe it was Dick Bayliss [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web], while observing the event, who remarked to my father ‘you’d better make sure he’s not taking down her phone number Tim!’

The following year, the annual meeting of the Association, scheduled for April, in Dublin, was cast in doubt following an escalation of IRA activities in the city. My father contacted his British colleagues, suggesting that the meeting be postponed for safety reasons. The response of his British colleagues was unanimous in their support for proceeding with the meeting, which was an unqualified success. Tim and Mary retained such fondness for their British friends and colleagues, and I don’t think it is unfair to say that he himself received greater respect and professional recognition from his UK colleagues that was the case in his native Ireland.

The Tim Counihan I knew was a weekend man of action. He held a private pilot’s licence until instructed out of the skies by my mother, Mary. He circuited Ireland in a rally car until Mary said to stop. He was a keen flyfisherman and shot, although in both pursuits, more got away than didn’t. He put his mind to farming, with mixed success, but always with a scientist’s zeal for experiment to do better. My father was infuriatingly well-read and knowledgeable. His study, ‘the Den’, was piled high with journals, periodicals, the Irish Farmers Journal, the Financial Times, The Times, the London Review of Books and The Times Literary Supplement, as well as assorted clippings on improving honey production (did I mention his bees?). He spoke confident, but perhaps reluctantly, Munster Gaelic; he quoted lengthy passages of Longfellow; and, invariably, popped up with the crucial crossword answer when my mother got stuck. He was not a ‘pitch-side’ Dad to his four children, but he kept keenly interested in each of our developments. Occasionally his oversight caused some turmoil, such as when he insisted that none of his children receive the BCG vaccination, which at the time was mandatory in Ireland. It needed direct communication with the Minister of Health for us to be spared vaccination.

Tim Counihan died peacefully at his Dublin home. Predeceased by Mary in 2007, he was survived by his four children, Anne, Michael, Peter and Timothy. He had a giant mind. He was what a proper professor should be.

Timothy J Counihan

[Facebook UCD School of Medicine 31 January 2016 – accessed 7 February 2019]

(Volume XII, page web)

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