Festschrift for Prof Ronan O'Connell
The School in conjunction with the Royal Academy of Medicine in Ireland held a Festschrift for Professor Ronan O’Connell, recently retired UCD Professor of Surgery and Consultant Colorectal Surgeon at St Vincent’s University Hospital. The event, which took place on Friday 8th December 2017 at the Intel Theatre, UCD O’Brien Centre for Science, featured many international speakers, colleagues, collaborators and former research staff of the renowned clinician scientist. The event was chaired by Professor Ronan Cahill, UCD Professor of Surgery at the Mater Misericordiae University Hospital and Prof James Jones, UCD Professor of Anatomy.
Opening the proceedings, the Dean of Medicine and Head of School, Professor Patrick Murray paid tribute to Prof O’Connell’s describing him as a person who throughout his career prioritised excellence in patient care, consistent and effective pastoral support and a commitment to academic standards in both teaching and research. Amusingly describing his approach went presented with major challenges or unreasonable requests, Prof Murray noted that Prof O’Connell would declaim firmly, ‘It simply cannot be done.’ Once he had articulated the enormity of the task at hand, Prof O’Connell would invariably then set to work to make it happen. Capable of presenting well-considered arguments on a wide range of topics, when persuaded of an alternative course of action, Prof O’Connell had the humility to match his sharp intellect and would become an enthusiastic proponent. Prof Murray thanked Prof O’Connell for his strong advocacy, leadership and support to the School.
Prof John Nicholls, Professor of Colorectal Surgery at Imperial College London and Emeritus Consultant Surgeon at St Mark's Hospital, London described Prof O’Connell’s impact on an international stage noting his impressive research profile. Prof O’Connell’s research interests have included pelvic floor injury during child birth, faecal incontinence and irritable bowel syndrome. During a stellar career, he has supervised to completion 25 postgraduate students and has trained 54 clinical fellows, several of whom were among the speakers at the Festschrift. Prof Nicholls highlighted that Prof O’Connell had published over 178 peer reviewed publications in high impact journals. In the last five years, he published three papers in the Annals of Surgery, one in the Lancet and one in the British Journal of Surgery. He has written three major text books on surgery and coloproctology and has been editor or deputy editor of three editions (25th, 26th, & 27th) of Bailey & Love’s Short Practice of Surgery, a major surgical reference text across the globe. Prof O’Connell has been the editor or on the editorial board of 8 primary surgical journals including the British Journal of Surgery, Colorectal Disease and the Annals of Surgery. Whilst on the editorial team of the British Journal of Surgery, the journal substantially increased both its circulation and its impact factor, highlighting the characteristic pursuit of both impact and quality. Prof Nicholl paid tribute to Prof O’Connell’s leadership in numerous international associations, committees and councils in surgery and surgical subspecialties. Prof O’Connell was appointed Honorary Fellow of the American Surgical Association in 2015, one of few non-Americans to be so honoured.
Many of the speakers described Prof O’Connell’s dedication to his patients such that his family were frequently deprived of his attention. Several recalled him bringing his young son with him on weekend ward rounds at the Mater Hospital. So, it was appropriate that the next speaker was that young man, Mr Robert O’Connell who is now a surgical registrar at Wexford General Hospital. In his personal reflections, Robert O’Connell described how his father’s commitment to his patients and his enthusiasm for his work, influenced his own career choice. Robert’s warm and articulate presentation gave a great insight into Prof O’Connell’s humanity and the pride that his family have for all that he has achieved.
This warmth of personality was a point touched on by the next speaker, Prof Calvin Coffey, the Foundation Chair at the Graduate Medical School, University of Limerick. Whilst a surgical trainee within his team, Prof Coffey recalls Prof O’Connell bringing him a large text book back from a US trip and presenting him a thoughtful gift inscribed tellingly ‘to a friend and colleague’. Prof Coffey described Prof O’Connell’s constant pursuit of “What is correct, true and accurate” and the interplay between surgery and anatomy. He described how this mantra has driven him in his own research that has led him to reinterpret the mesenteric framework that houses, holds and drains all the abdominal digestive organs. He described how a better understanding this organ complex and interconnectivity and its implications for Crohn’s Disease.
Mr Jurgen Mulsow, consultant surgeon at the Mater Misericordiae University Hospital spoke to how Prof O’Connell had ‘inspired, encouraged and supported some many surgical trainees throughout their careers’. He presented his work while a member of Prof O’Connell’s research team on ‘Cell Signalling and Fibroblast-mediated Stricture formation in Crohn’s Disease’. These themes were further developed by another of Prof O’Connell’s protégés, Dr John Burke, consultant general and colorectal surgeon at Beaumont Hospital. Dr Burke presented his research conducted at the UCD Conway Institute which involved molecular investigations into fibroblast growth and differentiation in stricture formation. He described his research mentor and how, according to Prof O’Connell, ‘the best questions start at the bedside’. Dr Burke noted Prof O’Connell’s defining characteristics of fairness, honesty and doing things well. Another research trainee, Dr Aonghus Lavelle, University College Cork who described ‘the microbiome and Irritable Bowel Disease’. In describing microorganism and their theatre of activity, he noted that it was the composition and spatial distribution rather than overgrowth which have disease significance. Dr Lavelle also paid tribute to Prof O’Connell, noting his commitment to hard graft, high quality and passion for improvement inspires those around him and had led to ‘a tremendous body of work’, to quote an O’Connell-ism.
Professor Charles Knowles, Professor of Colorectal Surgery at Queen Mary University London and consultant at Barts and The London outlined ‘Human Studies of Anorectal Sensory Dysfunction’ and the role of sacral nerve stimulation. In his tribute to Prof O’Connell, Prof Knowles quoted Samuel Johnson
“Integrity without knowledge is weak ; Knowledge without integrity is dangerous”
He noted that Prof O’Connell’s success stemmed from having both integrity and knowledge.
Prof Klaus Matzel, Professor of Surgery at the University of Erlangen and Executive Member of the European Society of Coloproctology presented the ‘Efficacy of Sacral Neuromodulation for Faecal Incontinence’. He demonstrated that sustainable improvement in quality of life was possible with this treatment strategy. He concluded his presentation with a video montage of warm testimonials from colorectal surgeon colleagues of Prof O’Connell from around the world.
Overcoming unexpected technical difficulties, Prof Søren Laurberg, Professor of Colorectal Surgery at Aarhus University gave an entertaining presentation on autonomic control and dysfunction due to injury during childbirth. He noted the importance of rigorous systemic scientific research study design in the investigation of obstetric complications arising from damage to both sphincter and the pelvic floor.
Prof James Jones, UCD Professor of Anatomy concluded the formal academic presentations with a description of animal studies of anorectal sensory dysfunction. He described animal models for obstetric injury to pubic nerve damage during child birth and the use of these models to study sensory pathways.
The Festschrift accurately reflected the impressive body of work which Prof O’Connell has delivered throughout his career. He has inspired a generation of clinician scientists to follow in his footsteps and has brought considerable distinction to UCD and the School of Medicine through his academic scholarship. In closing remarks, Prof O’Connell thanked his wife, Pauline and their children for their love and support through out his career. Reflecting on academic life, he noted that,
“If you ask questions and study carefully, it take the drudgery out of work and have a potential to make a meaningful difference to quality of life for our patients”.
The School would like to thank Prof Jones, Prof Cahill, our distinguished guests and all who contributed to this event.