Enlightened psychiatrist who brought humanity into care of mentally ill

Dr Robert (Bob) MacCarthy, who died on November 11th, aged 99, was formerly resident medical superintendent at Our Lady's Hospital, Cork, and medical director of Cope Foundation.

Born in Cork city in April 1914, one of his earliest memories was of being held up by his mother on the top floor of their house in Anglesea Street as the City Hall went up in flames. It was the night of the burning of Cork in December 1920, during the War of Independence. He never forgot the sound of his mother’s sobs as the roof of the City Hall caved in.

Bob graduated in 1938 in medicine with first class honours and first place in his class, and was awarded the Blayney Scholar prize.

He was awarded an MD degree from UCC in 1940 and became a member of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland at the early age of 26 in the same year. In 1941 petrol rationing meant that as medical officer at Rathgormack, Co Waterford, he had to do home visits to isolated rural houses on horseback. He often recounted that travelling in bad weather through the countryside on a wet horse was a most uncomfortable experience.


As a young doctor he encountered all of the dreadful social conditions of the time. He recalled delivering babies in the tenements in Cork city, and finding nothing other than old newspapers in which to wrap the infants. The father of a child he delivered in a Co Waterford farmhouse appeared at Bob's lodgings the next day, hauling a pig on his back in order to recompense him. The offer was politely declined.

Bob and his colleagues often brought food and clothing in their medical bags for the families. In the 1930s and 1940s TB was endemic and hunger was rife. His experiences in dealing with such hardship were to influence his future outlook.

He decided to pursue a career in psychiatry and worked in Our Lady's Hospital, Cork, from 1944 to 1954 as assistant medical officer.

From 1954 to 1961 he was senior assistant medical officer at Grangegorman mental hospital (St Brendan’s Hospital) Dublin, before returning to Our Lady’s Hospital, Cork, in 1961 to take up the position of resident medical superintendent. It was a hospital of more than 2,000 patients.

His appointment was instrumental in changing the whole concept of treatment of mental illness in Cork. It began the process of questioning the existing regime of institutional care and sowed the seeds of a fresh and challenging new policy of community care.

In his role at Our Lady’s Hospital he was a man ahead of his times. His enlightened and groundbreaking initiatives in abolishing padded cells and straitjackets, and his insistence that patients wore their own clothes, injected a dose of humanity into what was a harsh environment inherited from Victorian times.

Together with like-minded colleagues, he spearheaded the concept of rehabilitation and re-socialisation within the community for patients. He strove to introduce a new era of openness, moves that were revolutionary at the time.

Cope Foundation
On the outbreak of the devastating polio epidemic in Cork in the 1950s, Bob was one of many who helped the late John Bermingham establish the Cork Poliomyelitis and General Aftercare Association in 1959, now the Cope Foundation. He was its medical director from 1972until 1992.

Bob touched the lives of many, evidenced by the affection shown to him by numerous former colleagues and patients, extended family and friends. Gifted with an extraordinary depth of knowledge, his interests included history, Latin, Irish, poetry, painting, chess and animal welfare.

He was predeceased by his wife Mollie and his second son Denis Robert (Bobbie). He is survived by his son Ivor, daughter Rosemarie and granddaughters Emma, Sarah and Amy.