Professor Davis Coakley – An Appreciation
Harriet Wheelock

Professor Davis Coakley – An Appreciation

Davis was a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians Ireland, London, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Hon Fellow TCD, he was one of the most respected physicians and medical academics on these islands, who championed the development of geriatric medicine throughout the country. As a direct result of his initiatives physicians in the specialty now form the largest subspecialty in medicine in Ireland. 

Awarded entrance university scholarships, he attended University College Cork, where he achieved first place in medicine in his final examinations in 1971. Even as a medical student, his enthusiasm for writing prevailed - as editor of College Literary Magazines and the Irish Medical Students Journal - a love of and talent for writing which flourished lifelong. 

After postgraduate training in Cork, Dublin and Cardiff, he was appointed senior lecturer in geriatric medicine in the University of Manchester, returning to Dublin in 1979 as consultant physician in St. James's Hospital and senior lecturer in Trinity College Dublin. He was appointed to a personal chair in medical gerontology in Trinity in 1996, the first such academic appointment in the country. He went on to establish the first department of medical gerontology; home to many of Ireland’s PhD, MD and Master graduates in the specialty, many of whom shared outpourings of sorrow, gratitude and respect after his death. 

Under Davis’ stewardship the department continued to grow. He led negotiations with Atlantic Philanthropies to secure support for further academic posts, enabling Ireland to command a leadership role in research in ageing and a new build institute at St. James hospital - Mercer’s Institute for Successful Ageing. The latter was launched by President Michael D Higgins, 30 years after Davis first submitted a business case to government. Evidence of his vision, passion, tenacity and commitment coupled with the commitment of his close colleagues through those trying years - Bernard Walsh and Brian Lawlor. 
As Bernard said “Huge obstacles never impeded or hindered Davis from his goals and objectives”.

In Trinity College, Davis held many senior positions on committees and boards.  As director of Postgraduate Education and Dean of Health Sciences, he initiated Trinity’s membership of the prestigious Eurolife consortium, he developed the first masters in Geriatric Nursing and received many awards and medals. He was particularly delighted with the Charles University Prague 650 Jubilee Medal for his work celebrating education of Irish medical students at Prague in the 1700s, including a successful exhibition in the Long Room in 1998 at Trinity College– ‘A Bohemian Refuge: Irish students in Prague in the eighteenth century’, which also exhibited in Prague.

Davis influenced important infrastructure preservation which meant a lot to him: such as the acquisition of the AIB Bank on Foster place, and the preservation of birthplace of Oscar Wilde - 21 Westland Row. At St James, he ensured preservation and development of the Old Stone Building as a new academic medical centre, thus initiating the academic health sciences campus at the hospital. As a further contribution to infrastructure - in 1992 he turned to playwriting – scripting and narrating a play to raise funds for the preservation of the Round Room at the Rotunda. Staged at the Gate, Stephen Brennan played Oscar Wilde and both John Davis and James Coakley, Davis sons, gave notable performances as Wilde’s children.  More recently he initiated preservation of the old anatomy building in Trinity, raising awareness of its import as the only intact surviving anatomy school in Great Britain and Ireland.

Davis was passionate about history and literature and as such was the longest running trustee of the beautiful Edward Worth library at Dr Steeven’s hospital. He was Dun’s Librarian in RCPI and supported the development of the College’s Heritage Centre. 

A long-standing member of a number of societies including the British Geriatric Society, the BGS Pharmacology and Therapeutics Section, the Irish Geriatric Society (secretary 1984-1986) and Association of Professors in Geriatric Medicine. 

He has published over 150 scientific papers and eighteen books on medical science and on historical and literary subjects. Two of his medical books were deemed and I quote ‘significant landmarks in the development of geriatric medicine and pioneering volumes in their field.’  He discovered the import of ocular microtremor in consciousness and neurodegeneration during his MD thesis work in Cardiff and persisted with this research which has just recently translated into a new technology. 

His beautifully illustrated book "The Anatomy Lesson; Art and Medicine"   informed a successful exhibition of Irish anatomical art at the National gallery. His "Irish Masters of Medicine" collated the important historical contributions to medicine of 42 Irish medical practitioners and “The Importance of Being Irish; Oscar Wilde"- was the first ever biography to explore how Wilde’s formative years in Ireland had a significant impact on his life and writings, a concept which evolved from Davis’ extensive knowledge of the medical cultural milieu in which Oscar spent his early years.  It is fitting that it was Davis who authored Medicine in Trinity College Dublin which follows the illustrated history of the school over three centuries. And equally fitting that he co-authored, with his wife Mary,  The history and heritage of St James hospital, detailing the hospital’s story since its inception in 1703 - the hospital that he loved, helped to develop and to which he dedicated so many years.

It is almost impossible to do justice to the essence of this great scholar and clinician. He will be dearly missed by those of us so privileged to have worked with him and learned from his reflective, sincere, intelligent, altruistic, purposeful character, his remarkable interpersonal skills and his ever-present wit and roguish sense of humour. 

Prof Rose Anne Kenny, FRCPI