Outstanding surgeon and world authority in cancer research

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PROF GERRY O'SULLIVAN:BLESSED WITH a rare blend of academic brilliance and a practical approach to medicine, Prof Gerry O’Sullivan, who has died aged 65, was an internationally renowned surgeon, a distinguished clinician and a world authority in the field of cancer research.

Regarded as one of the outstanding surgeons of his generation, he was president of both the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the European Surgical Association.

On graduating from University College Cork in 1969, he did postgraduate studies in Ireland, America and Canada, returning to Cork in 1980 as a consultant at the Mercy University Hospital. Of west Cork farming stock, he was one of the first “outsiders” to break into a medical scene dominated by dynastic families.

A straightforward man, he never lost sight of his roots at Milleenahorna in the parish of Caheragh near Skibbereen. Despite receiving an array of lofty international accolades, his elevation to the West Cork Hall of Fame and the Muintir Skibbereen Credit Union Award for exceptional achievement were every bit as pleasing to him.

In her eulogy, his daughter Orla described him as “an extraordinary ordinary man”.

Though he had huge hands, his surgical work was remarkably delicate. An original thinker, he founded and directed the Cork Cancer Research Centre at the Mercy hospital in 1999. Though ill for some time, he continued working at the centre, which investigates major issues in the development and treatment of cancer at both primary and secondary stages. It has held internationally important clinical trials.

When awarded an honorary fellowship of the American College of Surgeons in 2008, the citation referred to his “profound impact on Irish, European and American surgery” and also mentioned that he was “known and loved by many surgeons and physicians”.

A research pioneer, he held several patents and created new techniques and cancer treatments, including minimally invasive and gastrointestinal surgery. He was also involved in the early discovery and development of probiotic bacteria as therapeutics. Stressing that laboratory and clinical experience were closely intertwined, he observed: “I think that makes our research much more meaningful.”

Quick to praise others, when a young medical researcher discovered that molecules found in turmeric, a curry spice, were shown to kill oesophageal cancer cells in the laboratory, he said her research had opened up the possibility that natural chemicals found in turmeric could be developed into new cancer treatments.

Appointed a professor by UCC, he was instrumental in the university’s conferring of a doctorate of laws on the Navan-born actor and benefactor, Pierce Brosnan, whose wife, Cassandra, had died in 1991 of ovarian cancer. Brosnan is patron of Unicef Ireland, Downs Syndrome Ireland and the Cork Cancer Research Centre.

From 1983 to 1985, O’Sullivan worked with the Park medical organisation in the Middle East and was founder and director of surgery at Baghdad Hospital. His ready collaboration with colleagues was recognised in visiting professorships to the University of Southern California and Royal College of Surgeons, Glasgow.

A generous mentor, several of his proteges went on to distinguish themselves internationally as scientists or consultant surgeons. A provocative lecturer whose awards are too numerous to list here, he also authored or co-authored more than 200 academic papers. Besides being on the Council of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland, he was president of the Irish Society of Gastroenterology, chairman of the British Oesophageal Group, and a member of the Council of the European Association of Cancer Research.

In 2009 he was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award, known as the “Medical Oscars”, by the Irish Journal of Medical Science in conjunction with the Royal Academy of Medicine in Ireland.

He is survived by his wife Breda, daughter Orla, sons Gearóid and Eoghan, brothers Con, Donal and Seán, and sisters Joan and Breda.

Prof Gerry O’Sullivan: born June 13th, 1946; died February 12th, 2012

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