Schizophrenia Research Forum - A Catalyst for Creative Thinking

Research Community Mourns the Passing of Eadbhard O’Callaghan

Formerly Newman Professor of Mental Health Research, University College Dublin, and Consultant Psychiatrist, DETECT Early Intervention Service and Cluain Mhuire Family Centre, St John of God Hospital, Dublin


Eadbhard O’Callaghan

The schizophrenia research community was greatly saddened to learn of the untimely death of Eadbhard O’Callaghan, who passed away on 2 May 2011 at the age of 53. Eadbhard was one of the foremost researchers in Irish psychiatry and a passionate advocate of early intervention in psychosis. Almost an entire cohort of Irish academic psychiatrists received his guidance as Tutor on the St John of God Psychiatric

Training Scheme and are indebted to Eadbhard for first recognizing and encouraging their interest in research. He contributed many important papers on early risk factors for schizophrenia and was one of the earliest proponents of the neurodevelopmental model of schizophrenia.

Eadbhard was born in Dublin on 8 July 1957 and began his medical studies in the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in 1976. On qualifying, he specialized in psychiatry and joined the St John of God Rotational Training Scheme. Upon completing his membership examination, he took a post as Research Fellow in the St John of God services under the supervision of Conall Larkin and John Waddington. Eadbhard had a particular interest in psychotic disorders and in the “new” neurodevelopmental theories of schizophrenia which were just coming to the fore at the time. Even though still a relatively junior researcher, he published highly cited papers on obstetric complications and minor physical anomalies as risk factors for schizophrenia, thus providing crucial support for the neurodevelopmental model. One of us (RMM) offered Eadbhard a fellowship at the Institute of Psychiatry, and he spent one year there. This was the beginning of an extremely productive relationship, despite a somewhat shaky start. The twin study that Eadbhard had originally come to work on did not go ahead, and Eadbhard had to find something else to do. Robin remembers sitting in a bar in Davos during a schizophrenia conference with Eadbhard, who was trying to convince him that the future of schizophrenia research was in epidemiology. Robin kept telling him that epidemiology was “old-fashioned” and that he should get into something modern like neuroimaging. However, Eadbhard could be quietly stubborn and eventually won the point. With his colleagues Nori Takei and Pak Sham, Eadbhard went on to publish a seminal paper in The Lancet showing that prenatal influenza increases the risk for schizophrenia. This paper changed the direction of Robin Murray’s research, and his department soon became one of the main centers for epidemiological work in psychosis internationally—all due to the foresight and persistence of one (exceptional) young researcher.

Despite many entreaties to stay in the Institute of Psychiatry, Eadbhard returned to Dublin in 1991 to take a post as Consultant Psychiatrist and Tutor in the St John of God Rotational Training Scheme—his old alma mater. He arrived back full of ideas and energy, and inspired many psychiatric trainees to consider carrying out research on psychosis. With the support of a Health Research Board (Ireland) Unit Grant and a Stanley Foundation (U.S.) grant, he began to build up a productive research group in Dublin. His favorite question to new trainees was: “So what do you think causes schizophrenia?” and he actually seemed interested in what the most junior trainees had to say. He retained his passionate interest in epidemiology and his belief that this was the only way that the “big” questions in psychiatry could be solved. His M.D. thesis on obstetric complications and schizophrenia was followed by a DSc and FRCPsych. His academic achievements were honored by his appointment to a personal Chair as Newman Professor of Mental Health Research in University College Dublin. He was awarded an International Gold Medal by the Italian Cognitive Neuroscience Research Society in 2001. He had productive international collaborations with Fuller Torrey, Tom McNeil, and Preben Bo Mortensen, among many others.

Eadbhard gradually began to focus more on clinical research, and became concerned at the long duration of untreated illness among patients with psychosis. His work in this area led him, with a group of like-minded colleagues, to set up the first early detection and intervention service for psychosis in Ireland, DETECT, which remains an exemplar of clinical innovation and good practice. A new cohort of trainees in psychiatry, psychology, nursing, and occupational therapy became enthused with his belief in the importance of early intervention, and saw the difference they could make to people’s lives. Eadbhard’s mantra was: “Do the simple things well.” Many others were influenced by Eadbhard’s excitement about research and his desire to puzzle out the answers to questions about the mind, mental health, society, and illness. In this way, Eadbhard inspired many to change the direction of their lives and careers. Eadbhard had a rare talent for relating to people in trouble. Indeed, his insight, his judgment, and the kindness he showed to his patients were remarkable.

Eadbhard was also becoming interested in an inclusive youth mental health model of service incorporating early intervention for a wide range of illnesses. He was attending a Youth Summit in Killarney in May 2010 when he became ill. One short and very difficult year later, he was dead. An Annual Youth Mental Health Research Prize has been established in his honor, which was awarded in 2011 to Ian Kelleher, Ph.D. student to Mary Cannon (one of the authors of this piece), who in turn was one of Eadbhard’s early trainees.

Eadbhard was a shy man who disliked public speaking, yet he lit up a room when he entered and was a memorable (though reluctant) speaker. He was intensely intellectual, yet had a passionate interest in sports and gardening. His colleague, Niall Turner, described how Eadbhard could explain complex scientific ideas in terms of the footballing tactics of the Liverpool Football Club (Eadbhard was a passionate supporter). Eadbhard was a skilful tennis player and enjoyed sailing and cycling, even managing in recent years to cycle some of the Tour de France route—a long-held ambition.

Eadbhard’s passing has left all who knew him, both colleagues and patients, with a great sense of loss. His family feels that loss most of all. He is survived by his wife Virginia and their four sons, Caolán (age 21), Oisín (age 19), Harry (age 16), and Eadbhard Jr. (age nine). He was so proud of his four sons and all they had achieved, and his wife, Virginia, was always the love of his life and a rock of support during that difficult final year.

There is, of course, one person who would disagree with most of the praise we have heaped upon him above and would have said quietly, “But surely you must be thinking of someone else.” Sadly, Eadbhard is not here to protest in his characteristically modest way, so we can hold all our memories of him without contradiction and say that we have known a wonderful and unusually good man. “Ní beidh a leithéid ann arís”—we shall not see his like again.

Submitted by Mary Cannon, Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, Ireland; and Robin M. Murray, Professor of Psychiatric Research, Institute of Psychiatry, London. A version of this piece is due for publication in The Psychiatrist in 2012. We acknowledge the help of Virginia and Caolán O’Callaghan, Conall Larkin and Niall Turner.