Obituary: Dr James Deeny

James Andrew Donnelly Deeny, medical practitioner: born Lurgan, Co Antrim 11 November 1906; married 1934 Gemma McCabe (died 1993; two sons, two daughters); died Rosslare, Co Wexford 9 April 1994.

JAMES DEENY's distinguished medical career was shaped by conditions in his native Northern Ireland.

Born in 1906, the son of a Catholic doctor in Lurgan, County Antrim, he was educated by Jesuits at Clongowes and qualified as a doctor at Queen's University, Belfast, at the early age of 21. Within a short time he had accumulated further academic honours and membership of the Royal College of Physicians; had he not been a Catholic he would undoubtedly have risen to the top within the scope of the United Kingdom but in the years after Partition the Protestant Ascendancy formed a closed shop. He was not offered a job as house surgeon in the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, where in those days there was not a single Catholic medical officer on the staff. 'In the North, the system was the system,' Deeny commented in his autobiography.

He returned to his father's practice in Lurgan, where his experiences among the poor country people of Antrim laid the foundations for his later innovations; one childbirth case in which the mother almost died convinced him that no woman's life should be at the mercy of such circumstances of extreme poverty and lack of care. 'It influenced my life,' he wrote.

Diagnosis as well as cure was a scientific passion for Deeny. He became an expert on pellagra, diagnosing it among his patients when it had not been reported in Ireland before. An internationally known expert, Professor Sydenstricker, of the Rockefeller Foundation, read a paper Deeny had written on these cases and came to Lurgan to confirm his diagnosis. When invited by the Belfast establishment to dine at the Reform Club, Sydenstricker refused to go unless Deeny was also invited, and Deeny found himself dining with all his former teachers and the whole Medical Faculty of Queen's, in a place where he would normally never set foot. 'Politics, bigotry, intolerance and being on the wrong side of the fence interfered in everything in those days in the north of Ireland,' he wrote.

Deeny's discovery of ascorbic acid in the successful treatment of the 'blue men' suffering from familial idiopathic metahaemoglobinaemia made him briefly famous but be regarded his next undertaking, an infant mortality survey of Belfast, as far more significant. In 1943 more than one child in every eight died during the first year of life there; little was known about the causes until Deeny highlighted the problem - as he did the other chief killer, tuberculosis, writing a study which showed up the clustering effect of the disease in working- class areas.

In 1944, new horizons opened for him in the direction he was bound to go, to the South. He was offered the post of Chief Medical Officer to the Department of Local Government and Public Health in Dublin and took it without hesitation. 'Coming to Dublin was wonderful,' he wrote. 'For the first time I discovered my country. I suddenly felt a free citizen of a free country and began getting the repression and bitterness of the North out of my system . . .'

On the practical side, it was hardly a brave new world. In Limerick the matron of the City Hospital, an elderly nun, lamented the days when the officers from Deeny's department were 'gentlemen'. Everything was locked up and when opened revealed the chief medical officer's string of yearling racehorses which occupied the ground floor and were exercised by the older inmates. When Deeny attempted to cleanse this Augean stable, the patients told him the horses were 'their lives' and it would break their hearts if they were taken away.

In the postwar era Deeny's Mother and Child Scheme, attacked by the Catholic bishops of Ireland as socialist tampering with the family, caused the break-up of the first inter-party government of John A. Costelloe, in 1951.

Aged 50 Deeny began a new career with the World Health Organisation, carrying out tuberculosis surveys in Sri Lanka and Somalia, and producing a National Health plan for Indonesia. He became Chief of Senior Staff Training at WHO headquarters in Geneva, continuing to work after his retirement, writing the Fourth Report on the World Health Situation and acting as WHO's first ombudsman.

A devout Catholic, Deeny became Scientific Adviser to Pope Paul VI and, one of his proudest honours, a Knight of Malta. In 1971 he 'went home', writing a survey of the people of Fanad, a beautiful part of north Donegal, the ancestral territory of the Deenys.

After a lifetime in medicine his conclusions in his autobiography To Cure and To Care (1989) would not have pleased Conservative health ministers. Lying in hospital after a heart attack, he reflected that a hospital was 'simply a shell in which skilled people work to provide a service and is only good as the people who work there. The service is provided in relation to and to meet the needs of the community. (When) people talk about closing beds or hospitals what they really are talking about is terminating services which sick people need.'

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Austen Lloyd: Practice / HR Manager - Somerset

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A rare and exciting opportunity for a Practice...

Ashdown Group: HR Executive

£20000 - £23000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: An exciting opportunity...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: A mainstream Secondary school in C...

Guru Careers: HR Administrator / Training Coordinator

COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: An HR Administrator / Training Coordinator is requi...

Day In a Page

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Attwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
10 best waterproof mascaras

Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'