Leading cardiologist and inspiring teacher

Sean Blake: June 11th, 1926 - January 18th, 2015

It may be difficult today to appreciate in full the achievement of Prof Sean Blake, who has died aged 88 after a long illness, but in his time – the 1950s and 1960s – he and a small group of other specialists in Dublin, many of them colleagues at the National Cardiac Centre (NCC) at the Mater hospital, revolutionised the treatment of cardiac disease in this country.

In the days before technologies such as CT scans, MRI and cardiac ultrasound became available from the 1970s onwards, his very careful clinical assessment of patients, learned as a postgraduate doctor in Edinburgh and London from two of the most renowned cardiologists of the twentieth century, Sir Stanley Davidson in Scotland and Paul Wood at the National Cardiac Hospital (NCH) in London, saved many lives, especially those of patients suffering from the then very common illness of rheumatic fever.

The essence of his method was careful study of a patient’s medical history and rigorous clinical examination using a stethoscope, which, his son Peter told the congregation at his funeral in Dublin earlier this month, was “crucial to the diagnosis of cardiac valve damage and its severity”.

It is some indication of the relative backwardness of Irish medicine in the 1950s that this deceptively simple type of medical treatment was a rarity here when Blake returned from London in 1958 to join the nascent NCC at the Mater as a consultant.


Exceptional qualifications

His qualifications were exceptional for their time in this country: for an Irish doctor, Dr Declan Sugrue, consultant cardiologist at the Mater, explains, it was very difficult to acquire training in the “great hospitals of London such as the NCH” given the prejudice against


which flowed from its neutrality during the second World War.

The fact that Sean Blake was accepted into the NCH in the first place was a definite recognition of his talent.

Paul Wood, an Australian based in London, was a global “guru” of cardiology in the 1950s, and Sir Stanley Davidson the author of one of the few solo-authored medical textbooks that is still in general use today.

From the late 1950s, Blake, and NCC colleagues including Eoin O'Malley, Keith Shaw, William Hederman and others introduced major innovations such as cardiac catheterisation for rheumatic valves, coronary angiography and bypass grafting.

Fantastic teacher

Another of Blake’s distinctions, Dr Sugrue points out, was that he was a “fantastic teacher”, both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

A particularly significant development initiated by Blake with the then master of the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin (NMH), Dr Dermot McDonald, was the treatment during pregnancy of patients with rheumatic fever, a condition which very often led to cardiac failure.

This illness, which today has vanished from Ireland, flourished in the appalling social conditions still prevalent in mid-20th-century Ireland, involving both poor standards of nutrition and slum housing.

By the time of a 1983 study of outcomes at the hospital for women with such problems, the incidence of death during pregnancy associated with cardiac failure, whether due to rheumatic fever or otherwise, had declined to just one in 300, which, Prof John Crown remarked this week, “very few maternity hospitals” had achieved.

West Clare

Sean Blake was born in the townland of Clohanes, Doonbeg, in west Co Clare to Michael and Mary (née Gleeson) Blake, both national school teachers, and educated at St Flannan’s College in Ennis and at

University College

, Dublin.

At UCD he would be duly appointed (in 1980) to his own chair of clinical cardiology, a position partly funded by the Irish Heart Foundation, which charity he had headed in the years 1975-1977.

At school he made the acquaintance of fellow Clare man Kevin MacNamara, who was in 1984 to become archbishop of Dublin . Their friendship was to be a lifelong one. Another friend was Patrick Hillery, with whom he shared a flat while both were medical students. After a career as a Fianna Fáil TD and minister, Dr Hillery served as president of Ireland from 1976 until 1990.

In 1951 Blake achieved first class honours in his medical finals and a gold medal, but not before having taken a year off to sit for the BSc degree, which he followed later with an MSc.

Senator John Crown, who delivered the eulogy at Prof Blake’s funeral Mass, remarked that Sean Blake was “defined by his work”, with little or no time either for sport or socialising, although he believed in daily individual exercise including swimming and walking.

Early riser

A very disciplined practitioner, he rose daily at 5.30am, and was at work at the

Bon Secours

Hospital in Dublin’s Glasnevin by seven o’clock, before continuing to the Mater and then the National Maternity Hospital; he continued to practise until disabled by his final illness at the age of 86 in 2012.

Dr Blake married, in 1955 while in London, UCD graduate dentist Frances Moran. She survives him, with their children Peter, Susan, Rhona and Judy, grandchildren, and a brother, Harry.

He was predeceased by his sisters Mairead and Cecilia.