Obituary: Sir Noel Moynihan
Thursday 27 October 1994
Noel Moynihan was President of the Save the Children Fund from 1977 to 1982, an era which saw a marked increase in public awareness of international disasters and a period which coincided with a substantial increase of the revenue and hence the activities of the fund, particularly overseas.
Although it will be for his work on behalf of the Save the Children Fund that Moynihan will be best remembered, his enthusiasm and energy ensured that he was a key organiser in all the many organisations with which he was associated.
Moynihan was born in Cork, the son of an Irish doctor, on Christmas Eve 1916, and educated at Radcliffe and Downing College, Cambridge, in the period immediately before the Second World War. He was ostensibly reading English in Cambridge but spent a substantial portion of his time on various fields of sport, playing for the university at rugby and gaining a double Blue in the mile and cross-country. He was also a member of the University Air Squadron and it was through this that he gained an immediate entry into the Royal Air Force at the beginning of the war. He served for a time as a flying instructor in Canada and was then posted to Mountbatten's staff in India. During the war he was twice mentioned in despatches.
After his war service and now aged 30, he returned to Downing, this time to study medicine. Even though by this time he was married with two children, he initially considered life as a medical student to be no more arduous than that of a student in an arts faculty and continued his sports interests for a time, captaining several British athletic teams and gaining a trial for England at rugby. He started a lifelong association with the Hawks' Club - the enduring picture is of him wearing a Hawks' or Achilles' tie and a fresh red rose in his buttonhole.
He settled down for a while to his medical studies, but in 1953, when floods inundated large areas of Holland, Moynihan and his wife organised a team of medical students to go over to assist in the recovery operation. This was Moynihan's first introduction to international relief activity. After six months in the Netherlands he returned to his medical studies at St Thomas's Hospital in London, only to be distracted by the Hungarian uprising in 1956.
Once again he joined the relief group, this time as part of the 'Aid to Hungary from Britain' team. During the year which he spent there, he both ran a refugee camp in Austria, often crossing the border to ensure that the refugees could find their way through, and subsequently co-ordinated the management of the refugee movements in Yugoslavia. It was during this period that he had his first contact with Save the Children Fund, who were also involved in the same refugee area.
Moynihan, now aged 41, qualified as a doctor shortly after his return from looking after the Hungarian refugees and joined a private practice in Chelsea. The fact that he was trying to establish himself in practice in no way deterred him from trips abroad as soon as any fresh disaster was reported. Thus during the decade from 1958 he went with relief teams to Agadir and Barce after the earthquakes in each of these regions; to Libya; to Kurdistan during the Kurd rebellion against the Iraqis and to Nigeria during the Biafran war. He was under fire on occasions during several of his trips and in the Biafran war two of the team that he was with were killed by a landmine. Many of these trips were undertaken within Save the Children Fund teams and towards the end of that period he was elected to the chairmanship of the fund's overseas relief and welfare committee.
Despite these frequent absences, Moynihan's practice survived and even grew, thanks in major part to the efforts of his wife Peg when he was away and his own efforts when he was in London. He had the highly desirable characteristics of a general practitioner of being kind, considerate and attentive, able to impart confidence in his patients but always knowing when a specialist opinion was needed. Nothing was too much trouble for him in the medical care of an ill patient.
In 1972 he was elected vice-chairman of the Save the Children Fund and then, when Lord Gore-Booth retired from the chairmanship in 1977, Moynihan succeeded him. He brought to the fund his vast experience in the refugee field and it was not surprising that though not neglecting the needs of the fund in the United Kingdom, he always devoted more of his time to the needs of the overseas activities. He used his many qualities of wit, good-humour, experience, diplomacy and tenacity of purpose to very good effect over the next six years and he was intensely proud of the fact that the level of central administration costs were kept low over the whole period. It was as a direct result of his efforts that the international immunisation programme for children was stimulated in 1979, initially under the slogan 'Stop Polio' but later on a broader basis. In 1979 he was knighted for his work.
For lesser mortals this extensive charitable work, coupled with a busy London practice would have been more than enough commitment, but not for Moynihan. He was a prominent member of several London medical societies including the Harveian Society and the Chelsea Medical Society, of both of which he was President. He continued his association with Downing College, Cambridge, and became President of its association; was a co-founder of the Medical Council on Alcoholism and a Liveryman of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries. He was a prominent member of the Roman Catholic community in London, serving as doctor to several successive Archbishops of Westminster, for which he was appointed a Knight of St Gregory and a Knight of Malta. He wrote two books, The Light in the West (1978), an account of the Hungarian uprising, and Rock Art of the Sahara (1979), and also collaborated in the authorship of medical textbooks on The Management of Mental Illness in General Practice and Holism and Complementary Medicine.
He retired formally from medical practice in 1986 and went to live in Sussex though he continued to look after a few of those that he had known for many years and continued to serve on the Council of the Save the Children Fund.
His wife, Margaret (Peg), whom he married in 1941 and who proved a strong support for him over the years, died in 1989 and this was a severe blow from which he did not really recover. The community is a duller place without this kind, Irish bon viveur.
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