Dr Walsh helped modernise Irish health system

Obituary: Dr James Walsh

Dr James Walsh
Dr James Walsh

New Ross man Dr James (Jimmy) 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 and 1990s, has died aged 94.

A pioneering doctor, who embraced and espoused the beliefs of the French Revolution: liberty, equality and fraternity, through his work and in his life, Dr Walsh died on May 30.

Born in Dublin to a Wexford couple on November 21, 1923, Dr Walsh grew up in New Ross. His mother, Ena Warren, was kind and gregarious. According to her grandson Paul Walsh at his grandfather’s funeral Mass, 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. Dr Walsh’s grandfather James was a dispensary doctor who founded a fever hospital and it was he who inspired young Jimmy to take up medicine.

In his youth Jimmy accompanied his father to political meetings and torchlight processions of the unemployed, hearing WT Cosgrave and Éamon de Valera address crowds on the burning issues of the day. After boarding with the Vincentians at Castleknock College, in northwest Dublin, Jimmy studied medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and public health at University College Dublin.

In 1953 he 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.

Dr 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, Dr Walsh founded the faculty of community medicine (now the faculty of public-health medicine) of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland in 1976. 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 Dr Walsh helped build Cork Regional Hospital, then known as the Wilton Hilton (and now known 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 Dr 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. It also brought him up against the Catholic Church hierarchy.

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.

A lover of theatre and opera, Dr Walsh 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, Dr Walsh passed on to a new generation his appreciation of French republicanism, including to his family in New Ross, where the Walsh name is known to all through the local Walsh doctors practise at Northgate Medical Centre. One of the mourners at Dr 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.

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.

Dr Walsh 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.

New Ross Standard