Irish chemist to receive highest honour from RIA

Prof Dervilla Donnelly to be awarded medal for outstanding contributions to scholarship

Next month, Irish chemist Prof Dervilla Donnelly will become the first woman to receive the highest honour that the Royal Irish Academy can bestow.

On March 7th, Donnelly will receive the Cunningham Medal at the RIA, which recognises “outstanding contributions to scholarship and the objectives of the academy”.

First awarded in the 1790s, the Cunningham Medal lapsed for a period, but was revived in the late 1980s and in the 2000s. Previous recipients have included Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, geophysicist Robert Mallet (whose groundbreaking work pioneered the science of seismology and the study of earthquakes) and Sir William Wilde, surgeon, polymath and father of Oscar.

“The Cunningham Medal is regarded as the highest honour that the academy can bestow, and now it is given once every three years,” explains RIA president Prof Mary Daly, who said she was “delighted” that Donnelly is to be the 2017 recipient.


Stellar career

“[Donnelly] has a career of incredible length and depth; she has built a stellar career as an internationally networked and recognised scientist.”

Donnelly learned of the news herself through a phone call from Daly. “I was surprised,” says Donnelly. “I couldn’t believe it, but it slowly sunk in and I am so honoured.”

From Dublin, Donnelly studied chemistry in University College Dublin, doing a PhD with Prof TS Wheeler. She worked in the US before returning to Ireland, and her research in wood chemistry was of particular interest to the forestry industry. She ultimately became professor of phytochemistry at UCD.

During a time before the programme for research in third-level institutions invested in infrastructure in Ireland, Donnelly recalls how she built connections with collaborators overseas.

“We didn’t have the equipment that we needed to identify materials,” she says. “So we linked up with researchers in France and began to build friendships internationally.”

Donnelly believes strongly that the practical applications of science underline the importance of advancing pure science.

“To defend the interests of pure science while at the same time securing funds from the State is a delicate balancing act,” she says. “As research is a cumulative process and our knowledge is advanced by building on the achievements of the past, the process can be slow.”

Awards and achievements

During her academic career, Donnelly supervised more than 80 PhD students – including Prof Pat Guiry, who is now professor of synthetic organic chemistry at UCD and science secretary at the RIA – and a sense of pride comes through as she talks about them.

Donnelly was elected to the RIA in 1968 and has served as its vice-president. She was the first woman president of the Royal Dublin Society and she chaired the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. She has also held numerous international appointments, including being chairman of the European Science Research Council.

A former governor of the Irish Times Trust, Donnelly counts fellowship of the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Boyle-Higgins Medal from the Institute of Chemistry of Ireland among her many honours and distinctions. In 2011, she received the inaugural lifetime achievement award from Women in Technology and Science.

Commenting on the upcoming Cunningham Medal award, Daly sees it as a way to honour Donnelly’s many achievements. “In Ireland we are great at recognising our accomplished sportspeople and artists and writers and musicians, but I think we don’t give enough recognition to really distinguished scholars,” she says. “I think it is important to make people aware that our scholars have done remarkable things.”