Dr Jack Flanagan

A Giant of Geriatric Medicine

Ireland's first physician in geriatric medicine, Dr Jack Flanagan had a long and illustrious career during which time the clinical specialty became one of the largest in Ireland with over 70 consultant physicians. 

John Joseph (Jack) Flanagan was born in Dublin in 1919 and was raised in Skerries in the north of Co Dublin. He was the youngest of eight children of William Herbert and Mary Flanagan. He attended Belvedere and Castleknock Colleges and studied medicine at UCD, graduating in 1943.

He spent seven years in London pursuing post-graduate training and returned to Ireland in 1949 to take up a position in St Mary’s Hospital in the Phoenix Park as a chest physician. He was awarded a MD (NUI) in 1954 for a thesis on tuberculosis. Recognising that tuberculosis was on the decline in the 1960s, he sought a new specialty interest and in 1964, he transferred as to what was then known as St Kevin’s Hospital, later renamed St James’s Hospital. There was a large population of elderly patients resident in the hospital at that time that came under his care.

Throughout its history, the hospital (which was formerly the site of the South Dublin Union) had a strong tradition of service to the poor and the elderly people of south Dublin. Jack was determined that the hospital should retain and develop this commitment to the elderly that had evolved from former times. In 1967, he was awarded a World Health Organization fellowship, which enabled him to visit geriatric medical centres in Great Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark. Jack was impressed that the Netherlands and Denmark had come fully to accept that care of the elderly was no longer a matter of charity, but was an essential and integral part of a modern health service. He brought back home an appreciation of the large amount of work remaining to be done in Ireland to address the medical care of elderly patients.

State of Care

In 1969, Jack wrote on the state of the medical care of the elderly in Ireland. Many district and psychiatric hospitals, including hospitals which had been largely devoted to the care of tuberculosis, had more and more of their beds filled with elderly patients, where they were allowed to remain without proper active assessment and rehabilitation of potentially treatable medical illnesses and conditions.

Together with a small handful of geriatrician colleagues appointed around the same time in Ireland, Jack strongly advocated the philosophy of what an ideal geriatric medical service should provide: a closely organised unit on the campus of a full-scale general hospital, with access to all acute services. This would thus maintain the sick, elderly person in the mainstream of medical care.

The aim was to provide a comprehensive medical service for the over-65s age group by keeping the patient independent and at home where possible, with close liaison with GP, nursing and home-care services. They founded the Irish Society of Physicians in Geriatric Medicine and Jack was one of its first chairmen. Jack still attended national meetings of the Irish geriatricians until well after his retirement.

He also developed the first day-hospital in Ireland, which enabled patients to receive the full range of medical, nursing and therapy diagnostic and treatment services without requiring an inpatient stay. In 2008, the Jack Flanagan Medal in Gerontology was instituted by the Dublin Ageing Research Network to honour his pioneering contribution to medical care of the elderly in Ireland. The medal is competed for annually amongst the Irish medical schools.

Jack was also a founding partner of Contactors Medical Bureau, Ireland’s first GP deputising service and up until a short time before his passing in 2010, he still maintained an active part in the running of the Bureau. Jack believed in active living and full engagement all his life and he followed this philosophy until the end. He was a keen sailor since childhood. He raced national 18-foot dinghies in Skerries and in competition around the country. He was Commodore of Skerries Sailing Club from 1961 to 1963 and with others, he ran a very successful Irish Dinghy Racing Association Week in 1961.

In 1971, he bought his first cruiser and sailed and raced his boats from Howth. Putting into practice what he preached in geriatric medicine, he cruised extensively with family and friends until his eighties and was a member of the Irish Cruising Club.

Jack was married to Eta Counihan for 60 years, receiving support and encouragement from her in all his activities.  He was a man of wide general interests which they shared, in particular an interest in their various gardens and they travelled extensively together in later years.He had a large circle of friends of all ages until he died aged 91 in the excellent care of the staff of St James’s Hospital, where he had worked for so many years.  Jack Flanagan was survived by his wife Eta, sons Declan and Raymond, daughters Finola, Adrienne and Emer and 13 grandchildren.

Adapted from an obituary published in the Irish Medical Times in November 2010.