Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Belfast man who became a world-famous medical pioneer, advised astronauts... and won a Nobel Prize along the way

Dr John Shepherd won a Nobel prize for his research into cardiovascular disease

A patient inspired a young doctor from Northern Ireland to embark on what became a world-famous career.

Dr John Shepherd was just an intern when he was inspired to delve into the mysteries of cardiovascular illness by a patient he encountered at Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital in the late 1930s.

The youthful doctor was frustrated that he was unable to help the desperately-ill man.

The life of the pioneering medic, who died recently aged 92, is being celebrated by colleagues who worked with him over decades.

Major public figures, including former US President Bill Clinton, have also praised the work of the Belfast man, who was acknowledged as a giant in his field and who never forgot his roots.

Dr Shepherd won the Nobel prize in the 1980s for his ground- breaking research into cardiovascular disease and became a world leader in its study.

The Belfast native ended up spending most of his life working in the US, finishing his career at the prestigious Mayo Clinic. Ironically, Dr Shepherd ended up dying at the world-renowned institution where he was cared for by his devoted colleagues in the last days of his life.

It was at the RVH he made up his mind to devote his energy to seeking a breakthrough in curing heart and blood pressure problems.

The Queen’s University graduate went back to QUB for a spell on the academic staff before joining the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and immediately engaged in the cardiovascular work to which he dedicated his life.

Even in old age his advice was sought by modern day researchers and it was said he never lost his own thirst for knowledge until overtaken by Alzheimer’s disease.

He met several leading politicians in America and his work at the Mayo was highly praised by President Clinton.

His discoveries advanced the treatment of high blood pressure and he gave advice to astronauts on how to deal with the pressures of space travel.

Dr Shepherd was the son of a Presbyterian clergyman in Belfast. There were 15 doctors of one kind or another in his family circle.

“But John was the special one,” said his Mayo Clinic colleague Dr Michael Joyner, who worked with him for many years in America.

“He was a giant in his field of cardiovascular physiology and his foundational work, which led to important advances, was recognised with a Nobel prize in the 1980s.”

Background

Dr John Shepherd was born in 1919, and received his medical qualifications with honours from Queen’s University. He completed his residency at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast. Dr Shepherd was one of 15 physicians in his family, including his daughter, his son, who is on staff at the Mayo Clinic and his grandson and namesake who is at Mayo Medical School.

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