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Wednesday 21 March 2018

James Fennelly

John Crown on the pioneering cancer expert who saved many lives

Professor James Fennelly, who died peacefully on July 20, was the founder of the speciality of medical oncology, or cancer medicine, in Ireland. The magnitude of this colossal contribution to Irish healthcare and to Irish society is perhaps best appreciated when it is understood that, in addition to founding the discipline here, Jim was, for a decade-and-a-half, the sole practitioner in this field in the country. As a result, the impact of his skills was crucial and irreplaceable for a whole generation of Irish cancer sufferers.

Thousands of our citizens were cured or had their lives prolonged because he made the visionary decision in 1960 to embark on a professional voyage into what were then uncharted career waters.

A native of Callan, Co Kilkenny, where the Fennelly home, Mill Island, is still in family hands, Jim was educated at Clongowes where he played senior rugby, and at University College Dublin School of Medicine. As a medical student he affiliated to St Vincent's Hospital, beginning a life-long affiliation with this institution.

His medical education was interrupted by a near-fatal bout of tuberculosis, which was treated by removal of the affected lung, a desperate and usually unsuccessful resort in those grim days before the advent of effective TB drugs. Thankfully for him and for many future patients, the operation resulted in cure, but left him to battle on through 60 years of life with one lung.

Following graduation from UCD, he undertook house physician positions at St Vincent's Hospital. It was during these days that he met, wooed and wed the love of his life, Jean Glasgow, who was a constant support to him through nearly 40 years of marriage. They had five children, David (who followed him into oncology), Jimmy, Karen, Patricia and Jeananne.

Jim developed an interest in the treatment of cancer with drugs, or chemotherapy, a concept which was, in its early days, virtually unknown in Ireland.

In 1960, he moved to New York to undertake training in this fledgling field in Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre. These were pioneering days in oncology, and Jim had the opportunity to train under true giants like David Karnofsky and Joseph Burchenal. He returned to Ireland in 1963, as consultant physician in St Vincent's, where he founded the first medical oncology unit in Ireland.

He had additional appointments to Temple Street Children's Hospital and to the National Maternity Hospital at Holles Street.

The Temple Street attachment proved particularly crucial. In the early 1960s, it was becoming apparent that many childhood cancers, especially leukaemia, could be treated with chemotherapy with varying degrees of success. Jim brought these treatments to Ireland and the country is now dotted with men and women who owe their survival to adulthood to his skills.

Despite the heavy workload, Jim remained engaged in cancer research, authoring or co-authoring more than 100 papers. He chaired the National Cancer Forum the Irish Cancer Society.

Jim was a hugely socially engaging man who lived a full life, grounded in love for family. He was also life-long tennis enthusiast. He was a president of Carrickmines Tennis Club.

Jim was also a passionate follower of horse racing and officiated as a steward at Leopardstown. The day he walked his own horse, Kill the Crab, into the winners' enclosure was one of the proudest in his life.

He died as he lived, surrounded by loving family, comforted by faith, and secure in the knowledge that he had made a difference.

Sunday Independent

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