Leading surgeon who wrote poetry and treated Saddam Hussein

Sat, Feb 25, 2012, 00:00

GEORGE FENNELL: GEORGE FENNELL, who has died aged 87, was a leading Dublin ENT (ear nose and throat) surgeon whose patients included Saddam Hussein. He was invited to examine the Iraqi leader’s ear while on a teaching sabbatical in Baghdad in 1976.

He was a consultant at the Royal Victoria Eye Ear Hospital and Temple Street children’s hospital in Dublin and also served St Bricin’s Military Hospital and Aer Lingus.

His practice included all areas of otolaryngology. He had a special interest in occupational noise-induced deafness, and was often sought as an expert witness.

Born in Athlone, (the subject of one of his poems) he was the youngest of 10 children of Patrick and Mary Fennell. Educated at Presentation College, Cork, and Belvedere College Dublin, he studied medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, following two of his brothers – Cyril, who was medical officer to CIE and Victor who was a psychiatrist in the UK.

On qualifying in 1949 he received the Lyons Prize in surgery. Following his internship in the Richmond Hospital he was a demonstrator in anatomy – a lifelong interest – at RCSI for a year.

His specialist training began in the Royal Victoria Eye Ear Hospital and continued in London, Brighton, Newcastle on Tyne and Sheffield. He held consultant posts in Stirling Royal Infirmary and the Northern Ireland Hospitals Authority before returning to Dublin in 1967.

His quiet and unassuming demeanour concealed a mischievous and quirky sense of humour. On one occasion, after a minor traffic infringement, a garda profusely thanked “Dr Fennell” for looking after his mother so well in the Eye Ear Hospital, and waved him on. Next day he checked the hospital notes and was delighted to find that the garda’s mother had actually been treated by his colleague Eric Fenelon.

He was a keen observer, with a benign appreciation of entertaining human foibles. In vain, exam candidates would scan his impassive features – he was an excellent poker player – to get a clue as to whether or not their answer was on the right track.

It is the mark of an expert to make the difficult look easy. One of the most hazardous surgical emergency procedures is to retrieve an inhaled foreign body, such as a peanut, from the tiny airway of a choking infant. George Fennell, without fuss, would deal with this, and similar emergencies,often in the middle of the night, with calm aplomb and expertise, and still face up to a full workload next day.

He was very hardworking, and for some years covered nocturnal paediatric ENT emergencies continually, at a time when there was no question of any recompense for such heavy duty. He regarded the practise of medicine as a privilege, and when he retired he worked voluntarily with handicapped children for a year.

A keen sportsman in his youth, he was Irish champion fencer in 1946, and was on the swimming teams of Belvedere College and the Royal College of Surgeons. In later years his favourite regular exercise was a long walk at the North Wall. For mental stimulation he did the Crosaire crossword in The Irish Times every day with his wife Maura. Chess was also a favourite game.

Very sociable, he was great company. He was also a musician, playing the violin and piano, (Mozart and Wagner were his favourite composers) and a poet, his verse often humorous and in the style of Robert Service. His poem Resurrection,read eloquently by his elder daughter Sybil at his funeral, deeply moved the large congregation.

George Fennell was a thoughtful and generous person of quiet determination; he was his own man. He was an exemplary doctor. He delighted in his own offspring and his grandchildren. His kindly nature and good humour will be warmly remembered with affection by his patients, colleagues and friends.

He is survived by his wife Maura, his children Sybil, Ivor and Hilary and four grandchildren.


George Fennell: born March 3rd, 1924; died January 31st, 2012