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Portrait of Professor Dervilla Donnelly

Professor Dervilla M. X. Donnelly Portrait

Professor Dervilla M. X. Donnelly is one of the most respected and influential chemists of UCD School of Chemistry. She began her teaching career in UCD in 1956 in the old School of Chemistry which was based in Merrion Street, Dublin 2 and later moved with the university to (opens in a new window)Belfield, Dublin 4. Throughout her truly extraordinary career to date she combined contributions in teaching and research at UCD School of Chemistry, with leadership in science policy and a range of public service contributions at national level and is also respected internationally for her (opens in a new window)research and publications.

Painted portrait of Dervilla Donnelly

Portrait of Dervilla Donnelly by Emer O'Boyle, UCD Artist-in-Residence.

A chemistry graduate of UCD, Dervilla Donnelly studied for her PhD under Professor Thomas S. Wheeler at UCD, returning to teach after postdoctoral studies at UCLA. She was appointed Professor of Phytochemistry (the study of chemicals with biological activity derived from plants, particularly wood) in 1979 and her research was of particular interest to the forestry industry in Ireland. Her research employed a combination of organic synthesis, structural studies, mycology and ecology and it provided an excellent training for students interested in pursuing careers in the pharmaceutical industry, biotechnology, or academia. She established worldwide research links and developed collaborations with international researchers. Dervilla’s skills and her commitment to European research were recognised by her election as Chairman of the European Science Research Councils in 1985, Vice-President and Member of the Executive Council of the European Science Foundation 1990-1997 and Vice-President and Member of the European Science and Technology Assembly in 1994. A selection of her other international appointments through the 80s and 90s included her role as President of the Phytochemical Society of Europe 1982-84, Vice-President of the Society of Chemical Industry in the UK, and a member of Council of the Royal Society of Chemistry. In 2000 she was appointed to the Austrian Council for Science and Technology, a position she held for 10 years. In recognition of her research, she holds honorary doctorates from the University of Nottingham, The Queen’s University Belfast, Trinity College Dublin, and the National University of Ireland.

She was elected to membership of the Royal Irish Academy in 1968 and served three times as vice-president of the Academy. In December 1989, she was elected the first female president of the (opens in a new window)Royal Dublin Society and in 1995, where she remains an Honorary member of its Council and Chair of the RDS-Irish Times Boyle Medal National Committee. Shortly after her retirement from UCD, she was appointed as Chair of the council of the (opens in a new window)Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies by the Minister of Education, a post she held for 15 years. She later served as Chair of the (opens in a new window)Custom House Docks Development Authority and the National Education Convention.

Professor Donnelly was also a Member of the Science and Technology Innovation Council (2001) and Vice-Chair of the (opens in a new window)Board of Governors and Guardians of the National Gallery of Ireland (2001-2002). She was the Chairman and Director of the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction between 2000-2005 at the request of the Minister for Health. She also served on the Board of the National Museum of Ireland and Chairman of its Audit committee and Board Member of the Chartered Accountants Regulatory Board. 

Professor Donnelly celebrates her Lifetime Achievement Award

(Photo: WITS)

Professor Donnelly is a tremendous example to women in STEM and in many senses paved the way for many more female chemists in academia in Ireland. Her inspiration to women in the Sciences was recognised 2011 with a (opens in a new window)Lifetime Achievement Award from Women in Technology and Science (WITS) in June 2011. Dervilla has inspired generations of UCD science students, in particular for female scientists. She also inspired second level students across Ireland through her role as a judge from the very first year of the Aer Lingus Young Scientist Exhibition in 1964, a role she continued for 40 years. 

In 2000 she was awarded UCD’s Charter Day Medal, for her contribution to the country and the university and in the same year, received the Boyle-Higgins Gold Medal Award from the Institute of Chemistry Ireland. Professor Donnelly became the first woman to be (opens in a new window)awarded the Cunningham Medal by the (opens in a new window)Royal Irish Academy (RIA), the Academy's highest honour, in recognition of her outstanding achievements and held many influential and important roles which influenced science policy in government and contributed to the scientific and arts communities.

In April 2023 we were delighted to unveil a specially commissioned portrait of Professor Donnelly at a ceremony in UCD hosted by the School of Chemistry's EDI Committee. In recognition of her very particular connections with UCD Chemistry, the painting by UCD Artist-in-Residence, (opens in a new window)Emer O'Boyle, now hangs at the main entrance to UCD (opens in a new window)School of Chemistry in the O'Brien Centre for Science - South above the heritage chemistry bench, which came from our old laboratory (see the photograph on the bench), before a major refurbishment of Science South provided the School with world-class facilities.

Her portrait was presented to her by a former PhD student and current RIA President, Professor Patrick Guiry, who said of Professor Donnelly: 

Dervilla has inspired generations of UCD science students through the clarity of her lectures to being such a superb role model, in particular for female scientists. She also inspired second level students across Ireland through her role as a judge from the very first year of the Aer Lingus Young Scientist Exhibition in 1964, a role she continued for 40 years. On a personal note, having been one of her 85 PhD students, I know I speak for all her research family when I say that we are thankful for her support, career advice and kindness. Above all she instilled in us a high standard of scientific rigour and integrity that remains with us throughout our careers.[1]

Dervilla Donnelly accepting a portrait

Professor Patrick Guiry presents Professor Dervilla Donnelly with her portrait.

Impossible though it sounds, Professor Donnelly manages to find time to enjoy some free time, particularly in her favourite sport, horse-racing. Dervilla has a golden rule: "that one day a week I don't do any chemistry, and every Saturday you'll find me at a racecourse somewhere in the State". Dervilla and her sister have a share in several horses and say, "we only need one more leg to have a complete animal!"[1]

Professor Donnelly's work has shaped the development of UCD School of Chemistry and her model of excellence is continued with the award of the Professor Dervilla Donnelly Medal to the highest achieving student of our BSc in Medicinal Chemistry & Chemical Biology.

Head of School, Professor James Sullivan, says of Professor Donnelly “She’s renowned in the school for her science, her fostering of collaborations and her mentorship. Her research group graduated over 80 PhD students, many of whom are in senior positions in academia or industry in Ireland and abroad."

The School of Chemistry was delighted to present the portrait to Professor Donnelly in person and all guests were delighted to hear our honourable Emerita Professor speak at the event.

Dervilla speaking at award event

Professor Donnelly shares some stories with the audience at the presentation of her portrait.

[1]  INTRODUCTORY ADDRESS delivered by  PROFESSOR PAT GUIRY on 16 June 2015, on the occasion of the conferring of the Degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa on DERVILLA DONNELLY

[2] INTRODUCTORY ADDRESS delivered by PROFESSOR G.T. WRIXON, Vice-Chancellor of the University, President, University College Cork - National University of Ireland, Cork on 25th April, 2002, in St. Patrick's Hall, Dublin Castle, on the occasion of the conferring of the Degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, on DERVILLA MAURA XAVIER DONNELLY

Contact UCD School of Chemistry

University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland.
T: +353 1 716 2132 / 716 2425 | E: chemistry@ucd.ie