Advancing paediatric surgery through education and research

Obituary: Irene Marion Desmet (nee Irving)

Irene M. Irving BSc, MB, ChM, FRCS(Eng)

Formerly Senior Lecturer in Paediatric Surgery, University of Liverpool and Consultant Paediatric Surgeon, Royal Liverpool Children’s Hospital (Alder Hey), UK, who passed away on March 5th 2020.

Irene Irving who has died at the age of 91 was a children’s surgeon who managed to combine her career with bringing up three children on her own after the early death of her husband. When she qualified as a doctor in 1952 her first job was in adult surgery. After a short time she joined the newly established academic department of paediatric surgery at Alder Hey under the inspirational leadership of Peter Paul Rickham, who was one of the first to specialise in the surgical care of children, along with Isabella Forshall. Irving was immediately fascinated by paediatric and especially neonatal surgery and, inspired by Miss Forshall to break into this male dominated world, she decided to make paediatrics her speciality. Paediatric surgery encompasses operating on children of all ages from the smallest tiny premature newborn to almost fully grown teenagers. Operating on the delicate tissues of a newborn takes special skills and she was particularly good at it.

She was born in Liverpool, the daughter of a chemical engineer and, apart from a short period of evacuation to north Wales during the war, she spent her whole life in Liverpool and went to school at Broughton Hall Convent High School, very close to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital where she would spend most of her career. Liverpool was heavily bombed during the war and she recalled one night nipping out of the air raid shelter to get a book and finding that an incendiary bomb had landed in the front garden. She called her father and the two of them lost no time in piling sandbags on the bomb, preventing it from exploding and thereby saving the whole family from death.

A state scholarship took her to Liverpool University at the age of 17, where she was the outstanding student of her year and grew up very rapidly in the company of many ex-service students. Inspired by her ex RAF friends she learned to fly in her third year but never became a flying doctor. Her only brother Francis was a pioneering glider pilot and aeronautics expert.

She was a fine and very delicate surgeon and her patients suffered few complications. In surgical parlance she was described as “having a lovely pair of hands”.

Her patients and families adored her as did the nurses and junior doctors. A former trainee described her as an iron fist in a velvet glove. If you did not pull your weight or let her down she would let you know in no uncertain terms. She was always calm and very approachable. Parents were happy with her explanations where she was always very careful and thorough as she was in all aspects of her life.

During her training she met and married Louis Desmet in 1960. At this stage she was destined for a surgical career but had to step off the ladder, whilst she had three children, to a part-clinical part-research post. Louis had been an oyster farmer in Belgium and then ran a hotel in Liverpool largely occupied by long-term resident elderly. Irene described how she would often have to be the hotel cook in addition to her mothering and work duties. Unfortunately Louis died of cancer in 1973 leaving her to bring up the three children aged 9 ,10 and 12. The youngest was born with a dislocated hip and spent almost five years in hospital, once for a continuous period of 12 months during which Irene visited her every day. Irving returned as a full-time NHS consultant surgeon at Alder Hey Hospital and senior lecturer in paediatric surgery at Liverpool University in 1974.

Whilst working in the academic department she did research and wrote papers as well as doing the research for and then becoming an author of what was the standard textbook – Rickham’s Neonatal Surgery. She served on the Council of the British Association of Paediatric Surgeons and the North Sefton Health Authority. An excellent teacher and lecturer, she was much in demand and undertook lecture tours in Brazil and the far east.

In 1986, following two skirmishes with cancer, she took early retirement and devoted her time to being a doting grandmother, travelling, buying a grand piano and learning to play it, and singing in a choir.

Irene was only 5 feet tall, always immaculately turned out, with an infectious sense of humour and a radiant smile. She loved reading poetry and was an avid Telegraph cruciverbalist.

She is survived by her three children, the sons are engineers and her daughter a wood engraver and Fellow of the Royal Academy of Arts.

Because of the corona virus pandemic she had a family-only funeral with six attendees and others linking in by video.

Irene Desmet, born March 25th 1928, died March 5th 2020.

Professor Alan Craft, Newcastle

Reproduced from The Daily Telegraph with permission from Prof. Craft

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