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Professor Dervilla Donnelly first woman to receive Royal Irish Academy's highest honour

Posted February 24, 2017

Professor Dervilla Donnelly, Emeritus Professor of Phytochemistry at University College Dublin, will become the first woman to receive the Royal Irish Academy’s highest honour.

The RIA’s Cunningham Medal recognises “outstanding contributions to scholarship and the objectives of the Academy”.

The medal is the Academy’s premier award and dates back to 1796. It is awarded every three years.

Previous recipients include Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney, John McCanny (microelectronics expert), Maurice Craig (architectural historian), Sir William Wilde (polymath and father of Oscar Wilde) and Robert Mallet (father of Seismology). 

Professor Donnelly, who is from Dublin, studied Chemistry at UCD. 

She has led a distinguished and varied career that includes scientific research and teaching, as well as leadership in science policy. She has also made valuable contributions to the wider public service in Ireland.

After Professor Donnelly completed her BSc and PhD at UCD and her postdoctoral studies at (opens in a new window)UCLA, she returned to UCD and began lecturing in chemistry in 1956. 

Her field of expertise was Phytochemistry, the study of chemicals with biological activity derived from plants, and her work in the area quickly gained international distinction.


She was particularly interested in wood chemistry and applied her research findings to a number of complex problems in the Irish forestry industry. 

Professor Donnelly was appointed Professor of Phytochemistry at UCD in 1979. She supervised more than 80 PhD students during her academic career, including Patrick Guiry, Professor of Synthetic Organic Chemistry at UCD and Science Secretary at the Royal Irish Academy.

Pictured homepage: Professor Dervilla Donnelly, Emeritus Professor of Phytochemistry at University College Dublin, who will receive the Cunningham Medal from the RIA. Picture courtesy of Women In Technology and Science Ireland (witsireland.com)

“Professor Donnelly was an inspiring lecturer and her research group was a supportive environment that allowed her PhD students to reach their full potential,” said Professor Guiry.

“She has always given me invaluable advice and has proven instrumental in helping me to achieve my career goals. The award of the RIA Cunningham Medal is due recognition for Dervilla, the UCD School of Chemistry and UCD.”

Professor Donnelly was elected the first female President of the (opens in a new window)Royal Dublin Society and was also appointed Chairman of the (opens in a new window)Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

She has also held many international appointments, including Chairman of the European Science Research Council and Vice-President of the (opens in a new window)European Science Foundation

The (opens in a new window)Royal Irish Academy elected her to membership in 1968 and she served as Senior Vice-President and Vice-President on two occasions.

Two examples of her many academic honours are a fellowship from the (opens in a new window)Royal Society of Chemistry and the Boyle-Higgins Medal from the (opens in a new window)Institute of Chemistry of Ireland.

During her career, she was also appointed Chairman of several important state projects, including the development of Phase 2 of the Irish Financial Services Centre and the National Education Convention. 

In 2000, Professor Donnelly received the UCD Charter Day medal, for her many contributions to the country and to the university. 

By: Jamie Deasy, digital journalist, UCD University Relations