Public-health doctor who devised State’s policy to combat Aids

James Walsh obituary: His public service was infused with the French republican model of liberty, equality and fraternity

Dr James Walsh: former deputy chief medical officer at the Department of Health

Dr James Walsh: former deputy chief medical officer at the Department of Health


James (Jimmy) H Walsh
Born: November 21st, 1923
May 30th, 2018

Dr James Walsh, the former deputy chief medical officer at the Department of Health who devised the State’s policy to combat the Aids epidemic in the 1980s, has died aged 94.

As he told the Lindsay tribunal, which was investigating the infection of haemophiliacs with HIV and hepatitis C, the use of condoms to prevent the spread of infectious sexual disease was opposed by the Catholic bishops. He also told Judge Alison Lindsay, in 2000, that the Blood Transfusion Service Board failed to withdraw stocks of HIV-infected blood even though he had issued instructions to do so. He insisted that had he been aware of this he would have had no hesitation informing the relevant authorities.

In his later career as an innovative public-health specialist he tackled the new threats of legionnaires’, Ebola and other transmittable diseases. In all he worked under 14 ministers for health.

Walsh’s grandfather James, a dispensary doctor who founded a fever hospital, inspired him to take up medicine

Born in Dublin to a Wexford couple of a mixed marriage in the noxious interchurch climate of post Ne Temere Ireland, he grew up in New Ross. His mother, Ena Warren, was kind and gregarious. According to her grandson Paul Walsh, she was ecumenically minded, despite a sectarian attack by anti-Treaty forces that forced her from her home at Arnestown.

Jimmy’s father, James, was a merchant who became active in local politics, promoting social housing and road construction. Young Jimmy accompanied him to political meetings and torchlight processions of the unemployed, hearing WT Cosgrave and Éamon de Valera.

Of even greater influence, however, was his grandfather James, a dispensary doctor, who founded a fever hospital and inspired him to take up medicine. After boarding with the Vincentians at Castleknock College, in northwest Dublin, he studied medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and public health at University College Dublin.

In 1953 Walsh met and married Nancy O’Brien from Ferns, a ward sister at Meath Hospital in Dublin. Unable to obtain permanent work, they headed for England. The then fledgling National Health Service, under the Labour minister for health Aneurin Bevan, enabled him to engage in disease eradication and school medicine in Lancashire. Their three children, Paul, Ann and James, were born there.

While in St Helens, just outside Liverpool, Nancy developed breast cancer. So they returned to Ireland, where she died in June 1964. Walsh’s second wife, Patricia, died in 2005.

With the economy’s rising tide under Taoiseach Seán Lemass, new job opportunities arose, including his appointment as medical inspector in the Department of Health.

In 1968 the Care of the Aged report ended the Poor Law system, with its segregated workhouses. With Prof Geoffrey Burke and others, he founded, in 1976, the faculty of community medicine (now the faculty of public-health medicine) of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland. They felt it essential to train doctors to meet the changing needs of medicine in the community. He later became dean of the faculty.

Next Walsh helped build Cork Regional Hospital, then known as the Wilton Hilton (and now as Cork University Hospital). This was followed by the replacement, from 1978 to 1983, of Dublin’s Jervis Street and Richmond hospitals by Beaumont.

Although Walsh retired in November 1988, he continued as an adviser until 1992, the year a national strategy for Aids was finally adopted.

His work on infectious diseases brought him in contact with the European Union, which he greatly admired, and he travelled widely in Africa and Turkey for the World Health Organisation.

A lover of theatre and opera, he was amused by the colocation of EU centres for disease control with major opera houses in Berlin, Rome and Paris. He was a keen supporter of Wexford Festival Opera and of horse racing, with membership of the Curragh and Leopardstown courses.

Through his stories about his ancestors in the United Irishmen in Wexford in 1798, Walsh passed on to a new generation his appreciation of French republicanism

One of the mourners at Walsh’s requiem at the Church of the Three Patrons, in Rathgar in Dublin, was Fr Paul Lavelle, who was previously responsible for the drug-awareness programme of Dublin archdiocese and for ministering during the Aids epidemic.

Walsh’s granddaughter Deirbhle Fergus spoke of how he excelled as a grandparent and, through his stories about his ancestors in the United Irishmen in Wexford in 1798, passed on to a new generation his appreciation of the French republican model of liberty, equality and fraternity, which infused his public service.

Afterwards, at Brady’s carvery in Terenure, the story was told of how on one ecclesiastical occasion Walsh discomforted Bishop Cornelius Lucey of Cork and Ross: rather than kissing his huge episcopal ring, as expected, the unfazed doctor mischievously shook his lordship’s hand and pressed his ring into his squeezed knuckles.

He is survived by Paul and his wife, Miriam; Ann and James Fergus; James and Judy; and six grandchildren, Isabéal, Paddy, Molly, Deirbhle, Ben and Tu Tuan.