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Prof Gerald C O’Sullivan — a surgical giant of our time

Prof Gerald C (Gerry) O’Sullivan died at his beloved Mercy Hospital, Cork, on Sunday, February 12. He was aged 65.

Prof Gerry O’Sullivan (1946-2012)

To a great many who know the real story, he was the outstanding Irish surgeon of his generation.

Certainly no-one was more widely honoured.  But more than any honour or international distinctions, far, far more than any of these, he had the affection and admiration of the entire surgical community, as well as the wider profession.

When he was elected President of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in 2006, it was the first time since the foundation of the College in 1784 that a Cork surgeon practising in Cork was elected to the highest office. He was worth waiting for.

Born into farming stock in Caheragh, a small village 11km north of Skibbereen, he was educated locally at St Fachtna’s De La Salle, Skibbereen and at University College Cork, where he qualified MB in 1969. His surgical training was in Cork, Dublin, Coventry, Edmonton, and Chicago.

He returned to Cork as consultant surgeon to the Mercy Hospital in 1985. He proved a superb colleague and every-one he worked with spoke well of him.

One of his outstanding qualities was his towering intellect. Fellow examiners marvelled at the sheer breadth and depth of his knowledge, but this was never shown off in front of the candidates, all of whom were treated fairly and courteously. His knowledge informed his superb judgment.

Another was his prodigious energy, which could probably only be measured on the Richter scale. He could work his way through long operating lists and was an expert at maintaining theatre morale towards the end of a long day.  He was a man of immense compassion.

Academic excellence
At an early stage of his appointment as a consultant surgeon, he and his colleagues changed the nature of the Mercy Hospital in Cork from a first-class community hospital to a centre of academic excellence. He promoted collegiality and his colleagues responded, and this included other consultant surgeons assisting him at complex operations, an uncommon event in Ireland.

He was an absolutely first-rate operating surgeon. His focus was the oesophagus and particularly oesophageal cancer. Patients came from far outside Munster to be cared for by Gerry. He often said that the secret of surgical care was in caring for the patient and this was his guiding philosophy.

Possibly his greatest and most lasting achievement was the founding in 1999 of the Cork Cancer Research Centre, initially employing two people. Now there are over 30 working there and he was Director from its inception to the time of his death. He brought speakers from all over the world, including Nobel Prize winner JD Watson, joint discoverer of the structure of DNA, to the Centre.

‘Man of the Year’
He was responsible for 229 publications, all with associates who were fully acknowledged. There were 37 awards, achievements and titles including twice ‘West Cork Man of the Year’, 29 keynote, invited lectures (a sensitive measurement in the complex taxonomy of surgical achievements), seven patents and many technical advances in operative surgery.

Of recent times, he had become involved as a mentor of the College of Surgeons of East, Central and Southern Africa. He was honoured by many bodies but of all, he most prized his Honorary Fellowship of the American College of Surgeons, which is limited to 100 living surgeons worldwide at any time.

His signature was his massive, winning smile under the broken nose (he had been a handy boxer and footballer in college days) and this and his refusal to be confrontational won many boardroom skirmishes.

Windy City
He had done some of his training in Chicago and he loved the city of “broad shoulders” (Carl Sandberg). Nelson Algren said that to love Chicago was like being in love with a woman with a broken nose. That city reciprocated by asking him back frequently to give lectures there.

It was a tragic irony that this man of great vision whose life’s work was devoted to cancer care and research should succumb to a form of multiple myeloma. This, coupled with a progressive neurological disease, made his last years really tedious, but all was borne with great good grace and fortitude.

He closely followed hurling, rugby and cricket. A man of deep, unquestioning faith, he also proudly read, wrote and spoke Irish.

He leaves a widow Breda (nee O’Callaghan of the well-known Bantry family), a daughter Orla, and two sons, Gearoid and Eoghan, as well as three brothers and two sisters.

“He wasn’t the worst of them” is the highest of praise in Cork. This just will not do for Gerry. Primus inter pares — first among equals — gets close. First indeed. And by a distance. An Irish Giant.

(Professor Gerald Christopher O’Sullivan, born in Cork on June 13, 1946, died February 12, 2012.
MB, MCh, MSc FRCSI, FRCS & P Glasgow (Hon) FRCSEng (Hon) FACS (Hon).


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