Thursday, 6 January 2011

Death of Dr.Harry O'Flanagan husband of Ita SMIDDY daughter of Prof. Timothy A. SMIDDY (first Minister Plenipotentiary of the Irish Free State to the USA)

Registrar who brought new life to RCSI

Dr Harry O'Flanagan, who died on August 29th aged 83, was a former registrar of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland. He was born in Dublin in 1917, the eldest son of Henry and Miriam (nee Chew) O'Flanagan. His father was a well-known and successful business merchant in Roscrea, Co Tipperary. His mother had been a theatre sister at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.

His early childhood was spent in Roscrea, from where he went to Castleknock College in Dublin. He entered the Royal College of Surgeons in 1934 and after qualifying in 1939 he did his internship in the Richmond Hospital, Dublin.

He married Ita (nee SMIDDY) in 1942, whose father, Timothy SMIDDY, had been the first Minister Plenipotentiary of the Irish Free State to the US in 1924. He obtained a Diploma in Public Health in 1941. A year later, he became an assistant in a large general practice in Lancashire. The following year was appointed Assistant Medical Officer of Health in the Rhondda Valley, where the poverty and suffering in the pre-antibiotic era, especially in children, were to leave enduring impressions that would influence the course of his career.

He joined the Royal Air Force in 1944, and as medical officer to RAF Kirmington, witnessed the futility and carnage of war. He wrote later of the shame that all who were involved in the bombing of Dresden would carry with them for all time, however circumstantial their involvement.

After active service, he was appointed Assistant Medical Officer of Health in Bournemouth in 1947. Two years later, he returned to Ireland and joined the Department of Health as Medical Inspector. In this capacity, he was responsible for inspecting the dispensary and public health services in the south-west, for establishing a national rehabilitation service, and for investigating and controlling epidemics.

In the latter capacity he supervised the epidemic of paratyphoid fever in South Tipperary in 1958, and the Cork poliomyelitis epidemic in 1956, after which he instigated and managed a national vaccination programme.

Harry O'Flanagan represented the Minister for Health on many international bodies of public health, including the World Health Organisation. He showed flair and an aptitude for administration in the Department of Health, and when the registrarship of his alma mater became vacant in 1962, he found himself at the administrative helm of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

At that time in the 1960s, the college could boast little other than an illustrious history extending back to 1784. Its Georgian building was in poor repair, its income insufficient for even maintaining the status quo, not to speak of expansion, and its academic departments were totally inadequate. There were no firm agreements between the college and its teaching hospitals, on which its very existence depended, the letters testimonial was out-dated and discredited by British universities, post-graduate facilities were almost non-existent and the political mood was to reduce the graduate output from medical schools. When the Higher Education Authority decreed the college should cease to function as a medical school, it was generally perceived at the time that the college's fate was doomed. But that was to fail to take account of the dynamic energy of the new registrar.
On the economic front, he persuaded both the government of the day and the Revenue Commissioners that the college was so unique as to merit special consideration, and an amendment to its charter in 1964 allowed it charitable status so that it could accept covenanted gifts from its graduates and other bodies.
Armed with this facility, the new registrar set off on a personal fund-raising campaign that brought him to the corners of the UK, Africa and the US, seeking out the college alumni and cajoling them into supporting his plan for a new college building to the rear of the old college. Over the next 15 years a sum of more than £2 million was raised.

Harry O'Flanagan re-vitalised the undergraduate school by recognising the urgent need for improved teaching facilities, upholding the college's tradition of providing doctors to overseas countries. This was achieved through a remarkably successful fiscal and cultural formula, whereby the college took one third of its studentship from Ireland, one-third from developed countries and the remainder from developing countries.
In 1978, one of the major obstacles to academic fulfilment by the graduates was removed when discussions with the Department of Education, Trinity College and the National University culminated in the RCSI becoming a recognised college of the National University of Ireland, with its graduates henceforth being conferred with a Bachelor of Medicine degree as well as with the traditional letters testimonial.
Harry O'Flanagan involved himself in the governance of the profession at many levels, serving as registrar of the Royal College of Physicians for four years, during which time he established areas of common interest between the sister colleges (RCSI and RCPI) which have since flourished to the benefit of both institutions; as a member of Comhairle na nOspideal; as secretary of the Irish Higher Surgical Training, and as president of the Medical Council.

He received many honours for his contribution to medical education - most prized perhaps was an honorary fellowship, the highest honour the RCSI can confer; he was awarded the knighthood, first class, of the Royal Norwegian St Olav's Order, for his contribution to the education of Norwegian youth, and a doctorate of medicine of the National University of Ireland was conferred on him in 1981. He is honoured in the RCSI by a named annual lecture, while the major lecture theatre in the building he devoted so much time to creating bears his name.

He devoted much time to Dublin's oldest charity, the Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers' Society, of which he was a trustee for many years.

He and his wife spent their time between Dublin and Baltimore, Co Cork, with retirement being spent mostly in their island home at Ringaroga.

Harry O'Flanagan is survived by his wife Ita (SMIDDY), sons Brian and Denis, daughter Ann, and brother Peter.

Dr Harry O'Flanagan: born 1917; died, August 2000

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