What brought a Nobel Prize scientist, an Emmy award winning actress, a co-founder of the Betty Ford Clinic, the doctor who discovered the link between aspirin and heart health, the man who played a huge role in writing the constitution of Kurdistan, the head of North America’s largest private hospital chain, the couple who fixed tragically deformed children and gave them their lives back and dozens of doctors and scientists from across the United States together in Manhattan last night?
That would be the Irish America Magazine first ever Health and Life Sciences awards which took place in the fabled New York Yacht Club last night co-presented by Icon, Ireland’s leading drug research company with 11,000 employees represented by CEO Ciaran Murray and a dedicated staff from Dublin.
A few generations back the only way the Irish would have entered the New York Yacht Club was as cleaners or waitresses. Now the Irish were marching in proudly as Nobel winners, healers, scientists and caregivers.
The Nobel scientist from 1962 was Dr James Watson who discovered the double helix in DNA, the most critical medical breakthrough of the 20th century. Imagine our lives without it?
Watson is now 86 but as spry as ever. He took to the microphone to gleefully disclose that in addition to the Gleesons from Tipperary he had discovered another Irish relative named Mitchell which made him precisely 52 percent Irish.
The Emmy Award winning actress was Fionnula Flanagan, my all time favorite Molly Bloom, who was accompanying her husband Garrett O'Connor, who was one of the first psychiatrists to recognize addiction issues that were rampant in the Irish American community. He also helped start the Betty Ford clinic.
The doctor who discovered the link between aspirin and heart health and the negative impact of many drugs such as Vioxx had on cardiovascular systems was Wicklow native Dr. Garret Fitzgerald from the University of Pennsylvania.
As The New York Times reported “Dr. FitzGerald is one of the world's leading experts in COX-2 drugs, a class of medicine that includes Vioxx, Bextra and Celebrex.” Other reports noted that his early warning on their side effects saved thousands of lives.
Though a physician, FitzGerald, no relation of the former Irish leader, has the heart of a poet.
Here is what he said in his keynote speech. “Our roots give us our sense of irony, humor, resignation and doom, our love of music, riverdancing and above all the talk, our way with words, our poetry our inclination to sing.
“But they also give us a sense of compassion, a love for the underdog, a devotion to fairness—these are the instincts and qualities so central to the values of people in this room, intrinsic as they are to careers in medicine and science.”
Accompanying Dr. FitzGerald on the night was Dr. Brendan O’Leary a political scientist who has helped create new countries literally. He was a key expert on the new police force in Northern Ireland as well as the d’Hondt system of voting there. He helped write the constitution of Kurdistan if that country goes independent.
Also present was Michael Dowling, head of North Shore LIJ hospital chain which now encompasses 19 hospitals, the largest private chain in the United States. The Limerick native left Ireland with nothing at age 17 and now is among the most successful health professionals in the world. If Hillary Clinton is elected he could well be her Health Secretary.
Dr. Bill and Kathy McGee, whose Operation Smile repairing cleft palates has saved tens of thousands of kids in poor countries from permanent disfigurement, were there also to be rightfully recognized.
Also there were more humble medical practitioners, cancer care nurses, care givers of all types including one very special guest, little Sarah Jane Donohue. In 2007, her father Patrick Donohue established the Sarah Jane Brain Foundation, which has now become one of the leading organizations worldwide working to prevent, identify, treat and eventually cure pediatric acquired brain injury (PABI).
It was truly a night to remember when Irish genius stood out and, as Ciaran Murray of Icon said, “We hung out our brightest colors.”
It was a great privilege to be there.