Pioneering orthopaedic surgeon and renowned Newgrange scholar
Obituary: Prof Tim O’Brien continued his work despite motor neuron disease
Prof Tim O’Brien: he spent 20 years as one of the world’s longest survivors with motor neuron disease yet continued his work with ‘no envy, no vanity and no regrets’. Photograph: Alan Betson
Born: November 26th, 1951
Died: October 11th, 2017
Prof Tim O’Brien, who has died at the age of 65, was Ireland’s first professor of orthopaedic surgery. Remarkably, he was also a renowned scholar on the cairns at Newgrange and Loughcrew, on which his pioneering research was published as a cover story in Nature, the world’s leading research journal.
The groundbreaking research into Newgrange posed the question of whether it was by accident or design that sunlight did not penetrate the end of the chamber on the day of the winter solstice. O’Brien and TP Ray, his coauthor on the 1989 article, demonstrated that this happens because of a change in Earth’s tilt that has been occurring since the cairn was built.
Astonishingly, O’Brien spent the past 20 years as one of the world’s longest survivors of motor neuron disease, living at home using a ventilator to breathe, while continuing to work as an expert on gait analysis at the Central Remedial Clinic and writing academic articles. His interests extended from orthopaedic surgery to archaeology to classical music, including a published work on Shostakovich.
In tribute to his friend and colleague, Prof Brendan Drumm of University College Dublin described him as an “incredible man” who did all of this using eye-tracking technology to type and speak. “It would be impossible to exaggerate the determination required to slowly and persistently adjust a computer screen cursor to create a document,” Drumm said.
Dr HH Stewart scholarship
Born in Loughrea, Co Galway, O’Brien was educated at the local De La Salle college, where he was an accomplished sportsman, winning an All-Ireland schools hurling medal. He began his medical studies at University College Galway in 1969, winning the Dr Henry Hutchinson Stewart scholarship, an award competed for across all medical schools to determine the best student. To be ranked first in the country marked him out as uniquely talented.
Robert Salter, the world’s most renowned orthopaedic surgeon, described O’Brien as the most accomplished young orthopaedic surgeon to have trained with him
After graduation he pursued a career specialising in paediatric orthopaedic surgery, training at two of the world’s most famous children’s hospitals, the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and Boston Children’s Hospital. In Canada he was a fellow under Dr Robert Salter, the world’s most renowned orthopaedic surgeon – who described O’Brien as the most accomplished young orthopaedic surgeon to have trained with him. Salter’s immense respect for him was later reflected when he and John Hall, head surgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital, made several trips to Ireland to visit him after his diagnosis with motor neuron disease, in 1997.
When O’Brien returned to Ireland in 1986 he was appointed a consultant at Temple Street Children’s University Hospital, Cappagh National Orthopaedic Hospital, Mater Misericordiae University Hospital and the Central Remedial Clinic, where his work on analysing the gait of children with cerebral palsy and then planning corrective surgery or other interventions received international acclaim. He specialised in the management of hip dysplasia, performing many Salter osteotomies.
Having lived in a state of almost total paralysis for many years, O’Brien showed his humility and strength of character in the concluding words of his acceptance speech after receiving, in 2005, a lifetime-achievement award from the Royal Academy of Medicine in Ireland and the Irish Journal of Medical Science. “I have been very lucky in my life. I have a wonderful wife and family of three. I have met many good and compassionate people, and this award will stimulate me to continue my work with the attitude and values that I have held for 30 years – no envy, no vanity and no regrets.”
He is survived by his wife, Dr Mary Jennings, his full-time carer for 20 years, and their three children, Cormac, Caitríona and Ruairí, as well as his four adored granddaughters, Niamh, Sinéad, Alannah and Maia.