Lives Remembered

Farmer's son who became world-renowned neurosurgeon

Co Derry-born neurosurgeon Sean Mullan

Dr Sean Mullan was a farmer's son from Co Derry who was admired around the world as a pioneering neurosurgeon.

 

For two decades he was director of the acclaimed Brain Research Institute at the University of Chicago, where he treated thousands of patients with great compassion, skill and care.

 

His prodigious contribution to contemporary neurosurgery is also reflected in the surgical techniques he developed, many of which remain in use.

 

Among his innovative and minimally invasive methods of combating brain diseases was the treatment of aneurysms using electrical currents delivered by a needle.

He and a colleague also created a procedure whereby a tiny balloon is expanded to disrupt severe pain signals involving a facial nerve.

 

The ‘balloon catheter’ is formally known as the 'Mullan percutaneous trigeminal ganglion compression set'.

 

He was a visiting professor at universities in Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Lebanon, and was the recipient of multiple honours for his teaching.

But despite his immense success, Sean, who was a devout and practising Catholic until his death, remained an unceasingly humble and affectionate person.

He could connect effortlessly with people from all backgrounds and always went out of his way to be a living embodiment of his determination that doctors should show their patients that they care.

 

John Francis (Sean) Mullan was born on a farm in Dungiven in 1925, where he and his sister Moira were raised by their mother following their father’s death when he was nine.

 

He attended the local two-roomed country schoolhouse, where his genius swiftly became apparent.

 

A highly sought-after county scholarship allowed him first to board at St Columb’s College in Derry - he would follow John Hume and Seamus Heaney in receiving its Alumnus Illustrissimus Award in 1998 - and then study at Queen’s University Belfast, where he graduated from the School of Medicine shortly after the end of World War II.

Following residency training in Belfast, London and Montreal, a "combination of fate and chance", as Sean would have said, brought him to Chicago where he became an assistant professor of neurological surgery in 1955.

 

It marked the beginning of an extraordinary 38-year career at the university, where he played an instrumental role in the founding of the world-renowned Brain Research Institute, serving as its director from 1964-1984.

 

In 1985 he was elected president of the Society of Neurological Surgeons in North America, and he would also serve as secretary and honorary president of the World Federation of Neurological Societies.

 

Sean also published an impressive body of academic literature, including more than 180 scholarly articles, 30 book chapters and a 1961 textbook.

 

In 1959 he married Vivian Dunn, a Cincinnati-born neurosurgery nurse, beginning a loving partnership of equals which was to span 56 years and produce three children, Joan, Brian and John, all of whom became doctors.

 

Vivian and Sean formed a formidable and charming duo, tirelessly fundraising for and promoting the cause of neurological research and travelling extensively on six continents.

 

He loved Ireland and returned to his childhood home almost annually until 2013, saying that ‘just by walking around, I pick up some of the essence of life there years ago’.

 

Sean never forgot his rural upbringing and a tree farm in Michigan provided an oasis of calm during breaks in his working life, where he took pleasure in hand planting and maintaining more than 24,000 trees singlehandedly.

 

Sean Mullan passed away peacefully at his home in Chicago on June 4 aged 90.

 

In addition to his beloved wife and children, he will be sorely missed by his grandchildren Caitlin, Sean, Aidan, Kevin and John.

 

His truly remarkable life was an example of one lived to the fullest, and his memory will always remain fresh and fond in the hearts of those whose lives he enhanced, whether as a family member, friend, physician, colleague or teacher.

Páraic Rafferty

Lives Remembered

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