Prof Helen Carty

A Magical Paediatric Radiology Pioneer

Helen Carty, Professor of Paediatric Radiology at the University of Liverpool until her retirement in 2004, was an uncannily gifted diagnostician. So says David Horton, Consultant Paediatric Radiologist with Hull and East Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust and Honorary Secretary to the British Society of Paediatric Radiology.

“Professionally I always thought she was almost magical. She had the ability to look at an X-ray and make a diagnosis even when you couldn’t tell what she was seeing.” And when you had been told the diagnosis, Horton adds, you still could not always understand how she’d managed to make it. But whatever the secret of Carty’s skill, it was underpinned by what another of her fellow professionals, Katharine Halliday, describes as “hard work and a powerful motivation to do the best for her child patients”. Paediatrics was Carty’s passion, according to Halliday, a Consultant Paediatric Radiologist with Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust. “She really defined the specialty in the UK. For a long time she was the foremost paediatric radiologist in the country.” Evidence for this can be found in Imaging Children, the mid-1990s textbook of which Carty was the principal editor; it ran to some 2000 pages.

Carty studied medicine at Mater Misericordiae University Hospital in Dublin, qualifying in 1967. After coming to the UK in 1971 to join St Thomas’ Hospital in London as a registrar in radiology, she moved to a consultant post at Liverpool’s Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in 1975. She began to pursue an academic career, and in 1996 the University of Liverpool appointed her the UK’s first Professor of Paediatric Radiology. “She had a wide range of interests, but within it she was an authority on paediatric nuclear medicine”, says Laurence Abernethy, Consultant Paediatric Radiologist at Alder Hey. “She was one of the pioneers in the field.” Carty also helped to pioneer a radiological alternative to open surgery for children with the aneurysmal cysts that leave their bones susceptible to fracture. The standard treatment relied on open surgery and the use of metal supports. “The new approach”, says Horton, “was to inject bone cement into the cavities under radiological guidance”.

Carty’s influence extended beyond the clinic and into the courtroom. She had a particular interest in non-accidental injuries to children and advised in more than 600 legal cases. “She was an excellent professional witness, one of the best of her time”, says Horton. Abernethy agrees. “She was passionately committed to child protection. Cruelty to children made her angry.” Carty was eventually elected an honorary member of the Council of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. She also made an impact outside the UK, serving in 2004 as President of the European Congress of Radiology.

She was a kind woman and could be very thoughtful, says Halliday. But she was also self-confident, never in doubt. “She could be very scary”, Halliday adds. Abernethy too recalls her as formidable in debate. “When she had an objective in mind she would tackle resistance head on”, he says. “But once you knew her you could detect the twinkle in her eye.”

During the latter part of her time at Alder Hey, the hospital authorities appointed Carty clinical director in charge of support services: a fiefdom that included pathology. On returning from holiday in September, 1999, she learned of a complaint that was troubling the pathology department. It had emerged that a large number of organs from deceased children had been retained in the department without appropriate authorisation. In the subsequent investigation Carty found herself having to answer for the hospital. “Monstrous allegations were made against clinical staff, including Helen”, her husband Austin, also a doctor, recalled in the eulogy he delivered at her cremation. “Helen’s professionalism and her meticulous record keeping helped her clear her name”, he added, “but the scars were there until the day she died”. The affair cast something of a shadow over her final years at the hospital.

Following her retirement, Carty became a Deputy Lieutenant: a Crown appointment under which holders assist at various ceremonial and other official events. In 2011, she undertook another such role as High Sheriff of Merseyside, a region of the UK which—her Irish birth notwithstanding— she had grown to love. Besides her husband Austin, Carty leaves two daughters, Jenny and Sarah, and a son, Tim.

By Geoff Watts,  Published in the Lancet, Volume 389 May 27, 2017.



Helen Carty (UCD Medicine 1967), Leading paediatric radiologist. Born in Dungarvan, Ireland, on May 12, 1944, she died in Liverpool, UK, on April 23, 2017, aged 72 years.