Obituary: Sheamus Dundon

Paediatrician who pioneered life-saving blood transfusion procedure

Sheamus Dundon: February 6th, 1919-January 8th, 2017

Sheamus Dundon: February 6th, 1919-January 8th, 2017


Prof Sheamus (Jim) Dundon, who died recently, was Ireland’s first professor of paediatrics, appointed in 1960 at the Royal College of Surgeons. As a paediatrician, he specialised in diabetes and nephrology (kidney disease). He pioneered in Ireland the often life-saving blood transfusion procedure known as neonatal exchange transfusion, for babies with severe jaundice after birth.

Born in Borris, Co Carlow in 1919, he went to Castleknock College and studied medicine at UCD. He qualified in 1941 and went on to get his MD in 1946. He became a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1949. For some years in the 1940s, he ran the general practice of his father, the late Dr Edward Dundon, in Borris and then went on to be a registrar at the Children’s Hospital in Liverpool. On his return to Ireland, he was a physician in the children’s hospital, Temple Street, Dublin. He then became consultant paediatrician at Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin, as well as at the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street, and at the Richmond. He was also a research fellow in renology at the University of Texas from 1963 to 1964 and his family went with him to Galveston.

He was a past president of the Irish Paediatric Association and a founding member of the European Society of Paediatric Nephrology. He has been described as “of the old school”, determined to protect from all unwarranted interference a doctor’s ability to exercise clinical judgement. He set high standards for himself and demanded them from everyone else. Otherwise, he said, the patients suffered. They always came first, and dinner guests at his house in Terenure got used to seeing Jim slip away before the end of the meal to check on a sick child in hospital. He handled his small patients with great gentleness and gave this advice to a younger doctor who was worried about frightening babies: “Don’t make eye contact with them,” said Jim. “You’re a stranger, and that may frighten them.” The young doctor was delighted to find that it worked.

A deeply committed Roman Catholic, Jim opposed the introduction of abortion and his letters arguing against it appeared regularly in The Irish Times.

In 1946, he married Sheila Meade, daughter of the well-known surgeon, Harry Meade. Their children, the twins Edward and Daireen, were the light of their lives. They enjoyed the finer things in life: paintings, wine, opera. Dr Tom Walshe, who founded the Wexford Opera Festival, was a close friend. They were early patrons of the festival. They were members of the Royal Irish Yacht Club and sailed in Dún Laoghaire and also in Baltimore in west Cork where they had a holiday home.

Resplendent in tails

Jim liked a bit of style and for years drove an old cream Jaguar Mark 2 3.4 litre saloon. It ate up petrol but he loved it. It was years before he could bear to part with it. He was a kind man, generous in ways nobody knew about, and intensely loyal to old friends and relations. His maiden aunt Nan was the last surviving member of his father’s family, from Prospect Hall outside Limerick. She was very proud of her good-looking nephew and said she would love to think that Jim would be chief mourner at her funeral, and that he would come in full morning dress. So, beside the old lady’s grave as the coffin was lowered, Jim stood, resplendent in tails, among the locals in their sensible tweed coats. Jim always kept his promises.

Like most doctors, Jim never wanted to be in hospital himself. His children, with devoted helpers, cared for him at home until his death. He is survived by his daughter Daireen and his son Edward and daughter-in-law Adrienne; by his brother Patrick in San Francisco; by his sister-in-law Denise; and by his nieces and nephews.