Healing hands on the frontlines: Cork medical graduates in World War 2

A World War 2 surgical operation.
British Army medics carrying out an operation at No. 79 General Hospital near Bayeux, Normandy, France, in 1944 (© IWM B 5802).

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Through novel research conducted by Dr Paul O’Brien, a UCC medical alumnus, this article brings to light the untold stories of UCC’s medical graduates who served during World War 2.

The indomitable Dr Joseph Aidan MacCarthy of Castletownbere, West Cork, was among 27 Allied doctors captured when Java fell to Japanese forces in February 1942; surprisingly, 19 of the captured physicians were Irish.

MacCarthy graduated with a degree in medicine from University College Cork (UCC) in 1938 and enlisted in the medical branch of the Royal Air Force the following year. The remarkable saga of his experiences during captivity and his survival of the Nagasaki atomic bomb has been well documented elsewhere.

But how many of MacCarthy’s fellow UCC medical alumni also served in World War 2, and what fates befell them?

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UCC’s medical graduates

The UCC sessional lists record graduates alphabetically across all faculties, detailing the degree earned and the year of graduation. Among thousands of graduates, 541 medical alumni for the period 1925–43 were selected for analysis: 476 men and 65 women. This timeframe was selected to focus on Dr Joseph Aidan MacCarthy’s contemporaries.

This subset was cross-referenced with the British military services records, revealing 76 individuals potentially linked to wartime service: 75 men and one woman.

The information in these records was scant in the extreme, containing little more than a name, registrable degree, rank and branch of service. Unfortunately, the place of graduation was not recorded and there were few personal details, except in cases of casualties. All were categorized as “British”.

Cross-referencing the 76 names with the British General Medical Council (GMC) records for the specified period was the next step. Again, it was not possible to identify the place of graduation as qualifications were listed simply as “NUI” (for National University of Ireland).

But reconciling the addresses given at the time of registration with the GMC, and the fact that the initial registrations were done through its Irish branch, allowed for the establishment of the validity of the 76 names as UCC alumni.

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Considering that 76 out of a total of 541 UCC medical graduates served in World War 2, this represents 14% of the cohort.

UCC’s WW2 medics

Out of the 76 combat medics, the majority at 46 served in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) while 23 joined the medical branch of the Royal Air Force (RAF), five served in the Royal Navy (RN) and two in the Indian Medical Service (IMS). Among this group, there were 17 casualties and captives, constituting 22% of the total.

Royal Army Medical Corps logo.
Royal Army Medical Corps cap badge (source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain).


Out of the 76 serving medics, there were eight fatalities. This included the British-born Captain Denis John Burgess (graduated UCC 1935), RAMC, who died at sea on 14 February 1945. He lived at 17 Gillabbey Terrace, Cork.

Likewise, Captain Thomas Anthony Kelly (graduated UCC 1932), RAMC, of Assumption Road, Blackpool, Cork, died at sea. He was on board the ill-fated SS Ceramic when she was torpedoed west of the Azores on the night of the 6/7 December 1942 by the U-515, under the command of Werner Henke.

Captain Thomas Anthony Kelly, Royal Army Medical Corps.
Captain Thomas Anthony Kelly, RAMC (image courtesy of Kelly’s granddaughter Siobhán Kelly Gordon).

Approximately 400 passengers and 250 crew were aboard, including about 150 fare-paying civilians, dozens of nurses (among them Katherine Frances Mary White and Margaret Nolan, both Irish), and six doctors. Most managed to escape in lifeboats and rafts.

SS Ceramic torpedoed in 1942.
The SS Ceramic, built in Belfast by Harland and Wolff (credit: Samuel J. Hood Studio collection, Australian National Maritime Museum via Flickr / Wikimedia Commons). She was the first ship the White Star Line commissioned after the Titanic.

The U-515 returned to locate the captain for interrogation but instead captured Eric Alfred Munday, a sapper with the Royal Engineers. Henke, believing they had sunk a troopship, was surprised to find women and children among the survivors. Despite people clinging to the sub’s hull, Henke gave the order to submerge and refused his own radio operator’s request to send an SOS on behalf of the Ceramic.

Thomas A. Kelly's Pearson medal.
Thomas A. Kelly was awarded the Pearson medal for his surgery exams at UCC in 1932 (image courtesy of Kelly’s granddaughter Siobhán Kelly Gordon).

A powerful gale the next day swamped the lifeboats and rafts. All perished, including Captain Kelly. Munday survived imprisonment and recounted the Ceramic’s sad story when he returned home in 1945. Only then did Captain Kelly’s friend, Robert Augustine Good (graduated UCC 1932), RAMC, learn of his classmate’s fate.

Robert Augustine Good, Royal Army Medical Corps.
Robert Augustine Good (RAMC) at the time of his graduation from University College Cork in 1932 ((image courtesy of Good’s son, John Good, MB).

Another Cork native, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Kiely Murphy (graduated UCC 1937), RAMC, was killed on 15 February 1942 during the evacuation of Singapore when his hospital ship was bombed by the Japanese air force and sunk.

>>> READ MORE: Irish connections with the doomed “Millionaires’ Ship”, the RMS Republic

Captain Peter J. O’Flynn (graduated UCC 1938), RAMC, of Marlborough House, Patrick’s Hill, Cork, was killed in action in Western Europe on 30 March 1945. Similarly, Captain Thomas Joseph (“T.J.”) Seavers (graduated UCC 1936), RAMC, of Birmingham, died due to injuries received in Western Europe on 22 October 1944.

While most were killed in action or died soon after an engagement, not all the dead succumbed to combat injuries. There were other enemies and hazards.

For example, Lieutenant Colonel Cornelius McGrath (graduated UCC 1936) of Waterfall, Co. Cork, a career officer in the RAMC, died of malignant tertian malaria in Burma on 18 May 1942. 

Lieutenant Colonel Cornelius McGrath, Royal Army Medical Corps.
Lieutenant Colonel Cornelius McGrath, RAMC (image courtesy of Patrick McGrath, MB, FRCS).

Captain Margaret Mary Loughnan of Cornwall (graduated UCC 1937), one of the few women in the RAMC, tragically lost her life in an accident in northern Germany on 24 December 1945, some months after the conclusion of hostilities.


Seven of the 76 serving UCC doctors were taken as prisoners of war (POWs). This included Major Vincent Bennett (graduated UCC 1936), RAMC, of Green Banks, Wilton, Cork, who was captured at the fall of Singapore in February 1942 and imprisoned in Malaya and Thailand until August 1945. According to his family, Bennett’s demise in 1962 was attributed to the appalling treatment he endured as a POW.

Major Vincent Bennett, RAMC (image credit: Desmond, Clive, Patrick and Carolyn Bennett – the children of Vincent Bennett; source: pows-of-japan.net).

Also captured at the fall of Singapore was Surgeon Lieutenant John Patrick Corcoran (graduated UCC 1935), RN, of 19 St Patrick’s Terrace, Magazine Road, Cork. Imprisoned at Malai 2 in Serangoon, Singapore, he was finally liberated after the fall of Japan in 1945. Five of his classmates from UCC also served in World War 2.

University College Cork medicine graduation class of 1935.
UCC medicine graduation class of 1935. Seated (left to right): J. Burke, J. O’Herlihy, E.M. Newman, J. Sheehan, T. O’Neill, J.N. McCarthy, R.A. Coughlan and N.L. Newman; standing (left to right): J.P. Corcoran; J. Breen; J.G. Barrett, D.C. Lawton, J. Cogan and H. Gremson. Six in this class served in WW2: E.M. Newman, RAF; Cogan, RAMC; Coughlan, RAMC; Gremson, RAMC; Burke, RN; and Corcoran, RN (POW) (source: © UCC Archive, courtesy of archivist Catriona Mulcahy).

Major Eugene Egan (graduated UCC 1926), RAMC, was also taken captive upon the fall of Singapore. He had come back all the way from New South Wales to serve. After Singapore fell, he spent the rest of the war imprisoned there and later in Thailand.

Captain Jeremiah Connolly (graduated UCC 1931), RAMC, of Arranmore, Ballintemple, Cork, was wounded and imprisoned in Oflag IX-A/H, Spangenberg, northeastern Hesse, Germany, a camp for captured officers.

The Cork-born Lieutenant Colonel Edward Joseph Curran (graduated UCC 1928), RAMC, was wounded and captured at the fall of Hong Kong on Christmas Day 1941. He was imprisoned in Argyle Street Camp, Kowloon in Hong Kong and later in Tokyo. He was freed in August 1945.

Flight Lieutenant William “Bill” Fitzgerald Tierney (graduated UCC 1936), RAF, of Model Farm Road, Cork, was captured in Java at the same time as Dr Joseph Aidan MacCarthy. Tierney spent the rest of the war in Batavia Camp and Haroekoe Camp, Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).

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The wounded

Besides the wounded who were captured and became POWs, two other UCC medical alumni sustained injuries in the line of duty. One was Major Maurice Francis Ronayne (graduated UCC 1938), RAMC, of Ballyvorisheen, Castlemartyr, Co. Cork, who was wounded in Burma on 8 February 1944.

Escaping unscathed

Some managed to come out the other side of the war seemingly unharmed, such as Major Richard Garrett George Barry (graduated UCC 1937), RAMC, of Greenville, Carrigtwohill, Co. Cork, who served from 1940–46 variously in Norway, India, Iraq, Iran, Egypt and Italy.

In 1949, Barry returned to Cork and played a pivotal role in founding the field of paediatrics as a speciality. In fact, he was the first paediatrician appointed outside of Dublin in the Republic of Ireland.

Assuming the position of UCC’s first lecturer in paediatrics in c.1950, Barry established paediatrics as a major clinical subject within the medical school curriculum and inspired many of his students to specialize in this field.

Professor Richard Garrett George Barry, UCC.
Richard Garrett George Barry, Professor of Paediatrics, University College Cork (source: © UCC Archive, courtesy of archivist Catriona Mulcahy).

His pioneering work revolutionized the care of children in Munster. The mortality rate for infant gastroenteritis fell from 23% to 4% between 1950 and 1954. The infant mortality rate also dropped from 50 to 23 per 1,000 live births over the same period. By the time Professor Barry had finally retired in 1982, the infant mortality rate was down to nearly 6 per 1,000 live births.

UCC’s School of Medicine: WW2 legacy

Whether on the frontlines, in military hospitals, hospital ships or POW camps, the experiences of UCC’s medical graduates during World War 2 form a poignant narrative of service and sacrifice. The challenges they faced, from treating grisly combat injuries and infectious diseases to the psychological toll of war, must have tested their expertise and resilience to the utmost.

Most soldiers rarely discussed their wartime experiences, and the medical officers were no different. Nonetheless, the lives of countless veterans were surely touched and improved by the skills, compassion and bravery of these Cork-trained physicians.

If you have further information on any of the doctors mentioned in this piece – or any UCC medical graduate who served in WW2 – we’d love to hear from you in the comment section below.

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The addresses of the combat medics quoted above were those given when they first registered with the British General Medical Council (GMC).


I’m very grateful to Catriona Mulcahy, UCC archivist, who provided me with the college sessional lists and other relevant records. My thanks also to Mark Ellen, information access officer with the General Medical Council (GMC), who obligingly ran the 76 names through the GMC records for the period in question. Thanks also to Siobhán Kelly Gordon (RN), Patrick McGrath (Fellowship of the Royal Colleges of Surgeons), Clare Hardy, and Lieutenant Colonel Peter Winstanley and Helen Winstanley (pows-of-japan.net) for information and images.

Sources & resources:

Forces War Records. Ancestry.

General Medical Council (GMC) records.

Gordon, J. 1989. ‘The loss of the SS Ceramic – December 1942’. Naval Historical Review (Sep. 1989). 

Hardy, C. 2012. SS Ceramic: the untold story.

‘History of department’. Department of Paediatrics and Child Health.

Jackson, B. 2016. A Doctor’s Sword: how an Irish doctor survived war, captivity and the atomic bomb. Collins Press: Cork.

Kearney P.J. ‘Richard Garrett George Barry’. Royal College of Physicians.

MacCarthy, A. 2005. A Doctor’s War. Collins Press: Cork. First published 1979, Robson Books: London.

O’Connor, S. 2014. Irish Officers in the British Forces, 1922-45. Palgrave Macmillan: Hampshire.

O’Donohoe, N.V. 2001. ‘Richard Garrett George Barry’. British Medical Journal 323.7318 (20 Oct. 2001), p.938.

‘Prof Richard Barry’. Irish Times, 2 Feb. 2001.

‘Story of SS Ceramic sinking’. The Argus (Melbourne), 16 Oct. 1945.

UCC archives.

Winstanley, P., Bennett, D., Bennett, C., Bennett, P. and Bennett, C. et al. ‘Major Vincent Bennett – Royal Army Medical Corps 67846’. Prisoners of War of the Japanese 1942-1945.

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