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Biographical entry Phelan, Mary Patricia (1925 - 2001)

MRCS and FRCS 1963; MB BCh BAO National University of Ireland 1948; DObstRCOG 1953; MCh 1963; FRCSI 1962.

3 March 1925
Tarbert, County Kerry, Ireland
1 January 2001
General surgeon


Sister Patricia Phelan was mother general of the Medical Missionaries of Mary and a consultant surgeon. She was born in Tarbert, County Kerry, Ireland, on 3 March 1925, the daughter of Robert Joseph Phelan, a lighthouse keeper, and Nora MacGreevy, a primary school teacher. Her family included some interesting characters. Her uncle Father Stuart Phelan was a Roman Catholic Chaplain to the Royal Navy and lost his life aboard the Black Prince at Jutland in 1916. Her aunt Kathleen MacGreevy was awarded the MBE for her services as a nursing sister at the Kent County Ophthalmic Hospital. Her uncle Thomas MacGreevy, who was twice wounded at the Battle of the Somme as a Subaltern with the Royal Field Artillery, became a critic and director of the National Gallery of Ireland, and, when in Paris in 1927, met James Joyce and introduced him to Samuel Beckett.

She was educated at the Loreto Convent in Killarney, and then studied at University College, Cork, and University College, Dublin, obtaining first place in her qualifying examinations. Her first house appointments were at the Royal Free Hospital in London. In 1948 she joined the Medical Missionaries of Mary, a congregation of Catholic medical missionary sisters, which had been founded by Marie Helena Martin 11 years earlier. She took the religious name Sister Mary Stella Phelan, but in her professional work was generally known as 'Patricia Phelan'. In 1950 she accompanied Marie Martin to the USA to found the missionary congregation there, and visited many centres, including the Mayo Clinic.

She returned to Ireland, as a senior house officer at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda, before going to Africa in 1953 to work at St Luke's Hospital Anua, Nigeria, Dareda Hospital, Tanzania, and Kitovu Hospital, Uganda.

In 1957 she went to England to do the primary course at the College, and then became a registrar in surgery at the International Missionary Training Hospital, Drogheda. From 1960 to 1961 she was on the surgical rotation at the Hammersmith Hospital, and then went on to become senior registrar in thoracic surgery at the Richmond Hospital, Dublin, and later at Chelmsford. During this prolonged training she obtained her English and Irish Fellowships and the MCh, coming first in all three examinations.

In 1964, she was appointed medical superintendent at the International Missionary Training Hospital, Drogheda, a post she held for three years, before returning to the Hammersmith as senior registrar. Now mother general of the Medical Missionaries of Mary, she returned to Uganda in 1968 for another year, but ill health forced her to return to Ireland. She spent four more years training medical missionaries in Drogheda, but she found that her administrative responsibilities precluded her from practising as a surgeon, so she stepped down, and returned to surgical posts in England, Canada and the Yemen.

In 1978 she dislocated a hip. This failed to respond to treatment, and prevented her from undertaking any more surgery. With this painful disability and her varied experience she joined the department of gynaecology at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital as a sessional clinical medical officer, and devoted the rest of her life to the care of women and children.

She died on 1 January 2001 in Charing Cross Hospital after a brief illness, and is buried in St Peter's Cemetery, close to the motherhouse of the Medical Missionaries of Mary, Drogheda, Ireland.

Sources used to compile this entry: [BMJ 2001 322 932, with portrait.].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England