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The leading doctors’ newspaper since 1967

24 May 2017

“I had always thought the medical profession in Ireland should have its own newspaper to project its image and act as a platform to promote its proposals and designs for the health services.” Dr John O’Connell, founder of Irish Medical Times

The late Dr John O’Connell was a complex man, but the reasons behind establishing Irish Medical Times 50 years ago seem quite straightforward, as the above quote suggests.

Dr O’Connell had earlier tried to persuade the Medical Union to produce a newspaper of its own to represent the profession, but its Executive apparently did not see a need. “So I decided to do it myself and assembled a group of prominent members of the profession to act as an editorial board,” Dr O’Connell later recounted.

He set out the policy of the paper in its first editorial, which stated that its purpose was to “inform, advise, educate and entertain”. And perhaps prophetically, he added: “It seems likely that we shall be in opposition no matter what political party is in power, but we trust our criticism will be constructive”.

But what about the man behind the publication? When Dr O’Connell finally gave up double-jobbing general practice with politics, he said that it was “with regret”. A member of a Labour Party that advocated a free medical service, Dr O’Connell had stopped charging patients at his South Circular Road practice, which he shared with his practice partner Dr Louise Regan, in order to square that difficult circle.

At the time, he felt he was engaged in social medicine, offering tranquillisers to people suicidal with depression because of their real problems with overcrowding, lack of money or dearth of work. Describing it as like “offering aspirins to the victims of an earthquake”, he wanted to tackle the earthquake and this was why he went into politics full time. He was also to shape the world of medical publishing.

Political career
Addressing the causes and consequences of poverty were the drivers throughout Dr O’Connell’s long political career, which officially began when he was elected as a Labour Party TD for Dublin South West in 1965.

But he had his own personal experience of chronic poverty. The son of an ex-British Army soldier who returned from World War I blind in one eye and to chronic unemployment, and a mother with a disabled leg, John was born just off Aungier Street in Dublin at the back of a tenement house, with the family later moving to a Dublin Corporation house in Drumcondra.

With poverty, of course, came illness. His eldest sister, Sylvie, died from rheumatic heart disease when he was aged four, followed later by his sister Kathleen, who was also an indirect victim of poverty. A third child, Sammy, who had joined the RAF at age 17, was killed in WWII.

An excellent student while at St Vincent’s Secondary School in Glasnevin, John joined the Civil Service but harboured a longing to study medicine.

Yet when he initially went to the local doctor for a reference for medical school, the doctor refused it. “The College of Surgeons is for doctors and doctors’ sons,” he was told.

Because he was not a ‘doctor’s son’, he had to support himself throughout medical school. Writing in his 1989 autobiography Doctor John: Crusading Doctor and Politician, he wrote: “My potted biography would read — ‘he has been a bookie’s clerk, fluorescent light installer, waiter, storeman, newspaper editor, doctor — and politician.’ And that’s leaving out a few…”

After internship in Mercer’s Hospital, and marriage to Lillian, he travelled to the US to work in a hospital in Ohio, before returning in 1958 to the Mater in Dublin as a Registrar — on a salary of £9 a week. As he was finished most evenings by 6 o’clock, he decided to put up a plate and go into private practice at night. So he ‘borrowed’ two rooms on the South Circular Road and set up practice.

A multi-tasker all his life (he used to store his fluorescent lights at the RCSI in the morning, before heading out to sell them in between lectures), he ran the Mater job and his private practice side by side — but soon became exhausted.

He decided to give up the hospital post and become a full-time GP and bought a house, thanks to a bank loan from a bank manager patient of his, located on the South Circular Road, with his partner Dr Regan.

It was at this stage that his political activism, if you can call it that, was awakened. He started to correspond with Archbishop Dr John Charles McQuaid over the poverty in Dublin and with the Dublin Health Authority against the unfit-for-purpose dispensary system.

Poverty traps
He described seeing so many patients “brutalised by poverty, malnourished, depressed by unemployment, drained of self-respect, of privacy, of the
basics of hygiene by overcrowding, and treated with contempt by the supposedly ‘caring’ systems”. It was this reality of Dublin’s poor that prompted him to seek to change the system.

In the 1965 general election, the first he contested, he won the second seat in a five-seater, behind Noel Lemass, son of Seán Lemass, but ahead of such heavyweights as Richie Ryan, Ben Briscoe and Joe Dowling. But despite the impressive debut (or perhaps because of it) he was not embraced initially by the Labour leadership, some of whom viewed him as an ‘outsider’.

Thus he worked well with fellow outsider Dr Noel Browne, and both their names went on the very first Private Member’s Bill on contraception.

He soon got the reputation of being a good ‘fixer’ of problems, starting with the successful resolution of a bus strike just one month after entering the Dáil. Housing issues around Griffith Barracks, which housed homeless women and their children, while their husbands lived in city lodging houses, was another early issue that exercised the new TD — even prompting a controversial appeal to the Pope!

Doctors in Ireland were sent a circular in January 1962 stating that the drug thalidomide had been withdrawn. The anti-nausea and sedative, which was discovered to help pregnant women with the effects of morning sickness, was sold from 1957 until 1962, when it was withdrawn after being found to be a teratogen, which caused many different forms of birth defects.

Again writing in his autobiography, Dr O’Connell expressed his anger that the manufacturer or the Department of Health did not scour the pharmacies and shops for remaining stocks. “Three years later I was able to buy thalidomide over the counter of a chemist’s shop in this country, without the use of a prescription. Three years after the alarming cases in Britain.”

He helped to establish the Association for Justice for the Irish Thalidomide Children and travelled to Germany to visit Chemie Grunenthal over the compensation provided to Irish victims.

The MIMS Ireland story started in 1955 in the US. Dr O’Connell’s three years in Ohio planted the seed for what would become the most popular prescribing guide for English-speaking medical practitioners around the world. “When I arrived in this big hospital in Ohio, I found a great difficulty in prescribing drugs there,” he said in an interview with IMT in August 2010, to mark the 50th anniversary of MIMS Ireland. “I had to go to the 18th floor to consult the thick guide they kept there, but it was not helpful at all. I never got anything helpful,” he recalled.

Obviously, the drugs he was looking up were not the same as those prescribed in Ireland, and he soon realised that something was missing that would give quick, accessible prescribing information to young foreign doctors like himself — and in fact, to all doctors.

He was assisted by Alf Morgan, who was running a medical publishing company in Canada, and was making his way back to the UK at about the same time as Dr O’Connell was returning to Ireland. The prescribing guide finally emerged under the acronym of MIMS — Monthly Index of Medical Specialties, with two versions set up in Ireland and the UK.

The paper of record
During a self-imposed exile from politics in the late 1960s, he set up Irish Medical Times — a newspaper that would have “a strong element of postgraduate medicine in it, and also a strong medico-political side”, he explained. “It would provide doctors with a forum for discussion of current issues. I planned to pack it with good articles of a readable nature.”

Launched in January 1967, Dr O’Connell was conscious that Irish Medical Times must maintain a high standard of objective and unbiased reporting. The first issue landed with a bang, with an exclusive interview with the then Minister for Health Seán Flanagan, albeit in a less than free-flowing Q&A format.

“So it was our established editorial policy from the outset never to become identified with narrow-minded party politics in our treatment of medico-political affairs,” he stated.

But this did not inhibit the publication from campaigning on issues of the day, as it continues to do. “I have always, for example, advocated the right to family planning and Irish Medical Times has stood for the same thing since its inception.

“Of course, the Irish Medical Times’s outspoken advocacy of family planning annoyed some doctors, and we had requests from them that they should be taken off the mailing lists. Despite this, Irish Medical Times has flourished and today, I believe it is an accepted part of Irish doctors’ lives,” he again wrote in his 1989 autobiography.

And throughout its history, IMT has always been a campaigning paper: for the early availability of family planning, the unification of the Medical Union and IMA, the common contract for consultants, the formation of the ICGP, pay and conditions of NCHDs, GP co-ops, right up to more recent campaigns against bullying.

But there were many bumps along the way, including the request from IMT’s Editorial Board for Dr O’Connell to resign ahead of his seeking nomination for the General Election in June of 1969. For those of you who knew Dr O’Connell, you will realise that was never going to happen.

And writing as Minister for Health in 1992, he had this to say: “Since becoming Minister for Health I have become more aware of the critical role adopted by Irish Medical Times, which at times has embarrassed and upset me. But I realise that that was the purpose for which I established this paper.”

Northern Ireland
Back in the 1970s, O’Connell got involved in efforts to end the Troubles in Northern Ireland. In March 1972, Republican leaders Seán Mac Stiofáin, David O’Connell and Joe Cahill contacted him about bringing a document to the British government, regarding a proposed 72-hour truce. Dr O’Connell went to British Labour Party Leader Harold Wilson with the document, who showed it to Prime Minister Ted Heath.

A secret meeting was later arranged in Dr O’Connell’s own home between the IRA representatives and Wilson, but negotiations over a ceasefire ultimately broke down. “Talking to terrorists in an effort to stop the killing is one of the things I’ve been proudest of,” he later stated.

But this was not the last time he was to try to intervene in the Troubles, visiting, as an MEP, Bobby Sands a decade later in the Maze during the hunger strikes.

He was to play a part in ending the political career of Charles Haughey, over passports organised for a rich Arab and his family, and he was also later to appear at the Moriarty Tribunal over investments he made in Celtic Helicopters, the business venture of Haughey’s son Ciarán.

Minister for Health
A strong advocate of family planning, he used his brief time as Health Minister (February 1992 to January 1993), before retiring due to ill-health, to oversee the introduction of condom machines, which had previously been banned, and to progress the development of a new hospital in Tallaght.

Although he said at the time that the appointment was the culmination of his career, his time at Hawkins House was too short to deliver on his other priorities, which included giving general practice “its rightful place” in the health service.

He once said he could count his achievements on the fingers of one hand, and that most problems had largely gone unchanged. “In the old days, you had bed bugs, red raddle walls and TB. Today, you have head-lice, high-rises and drugs,” he stated in the late 1980s.

But he was also ahead of his time. For example, it is interesting to go back to Dáil proceedings over the Medical Practitioners Bill, 1977. Debating at the time with then Health Minister Charles Haughey, Dr O’Connell not only wanted more GP representation on Council, but also that the Council should not be composed of doctors alone.

“The public must have representation. I want to see them involved in this new Council and I want to see the Council answerable to the public.”

And on IMT, our founder had this to say: “I think that much of its success is due to the fact that doctors consider it is their paper.” We hope you still do.

Dara Gantly,
Editor, Irish Medical Times

The post The leading doctors’ newspaper since 1967 appeared first on Irish Medical Times.

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