A few months ago, in London, a commemorative plaque was erected in honour of Dr Robert Dolan, a proud Galway man who was a brilliant forensic psychiatrist and medical administrator.
It is a measure of the high esteem in which Dr Dolan was widely held that this plaque was erected less than two years after his death, whereas 20 years is the usual minimum period before such an honour is bestowed.
As part of the ceremony, the headquarters of East London National Health Service Foundation Trust, of which he was chief executive, was renamed Robert Dolan House. Yet despite his many remarkable achievements and accolades in the clinical and organisational aspects of psychiatric care in Britain, Dolan is not so widely today known in his native Galway.
Born in Galway in 1947 and graduating in medicine from UCG, as it then was, in 1972, Robert Dolan was appointed registrar at Charing Cross Hospital in 1979, where he trained in psychiatry, becoming a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists the same year. He reached the rank of medical director at three trusts, including East London, where, in 2006, he became chief executive.
'He was very non-authoritarian, very focused on the role that each individual working in the services could do, no matter how modest that role'
During his tenure as CEO, a position rarely held by a doctor, East London gained Foundation and University Trust status. On his retirement, it served a population of 1,380,000 with 5,000 staff and a budget of £353 million, providing integrated, patient-centred care. In 2015 ELFT was named Trust of the Year for Patient Safety and won the Health Service Journal’s award for staff engagement. In 2016 the Care Quality Commission gave the Trust an overall rating of ‘outstanding’, and it won the journal's Provider Trust of the Year Award.
An advisor to the UK’s Department of Health and the Home Office, Dr Dolan was pivotal in shaping national policy in three important areas: England’s three high security hospitals, policy regarding dangerous and severe personality disorder, and mental health care strategies in prisons.
Earlier this week, his long time friend, retired Irish diplomat John Morahan (another Galway man ) spoke with me about Dr Dolan’s life and work, his many passions and professional successes.
Knowledgeable, imaginative and empathetic
“Robert was a brilliant clinician,” Morahan recalls. “He was rigorous, knowledgeable, imaginative and empathetic. He had a special feel for the patients he was treating so there was a great humane dimension to his care of people. After being a highly successful clinician, he decided that he could best serve the professional community of psychiatry, and especially its patients, by becoming an administrator.”
Morahan outlines the rare skill-set that Dolan brought to his administrative roles: “He had the political and the financial management skills that were needed to take on the task of administration. To be an administrator at that level you have to be able to win battles for resources in a competitive situation where others are making similar claims for their areas. Bear in mind that mental health was under-resourced and never a top priority. Robert’s achievement was to get it up the list and that was amazing.
'The two of us first went to Cheltenham together in 1986, the year Dawn Run won the Gold Cup. We were just by the winning post as she started making her move. We both felt we were present at an epic event'
"He was able to produce resources in terms of funding, staffing, buildings and that motivated all of the people who worked under and with him. He was doing a job that many people who had his clinical knowledge could not have done, while others who were administrators didn’t know health-care from the ground up as he did.”
Dolan was a gifted and hugely popular leader in his field: “He was very non-authoritarian, very focused on the role that each individual working in the services could do, no matter how modest that role,” Morahan explains. “In the tributes that were paid to him by his staff after his death there were many people who worked in modest areas of the service who recalled how pleasant his attitude to them was, he would always ask them about their job and how it was going.
"He knew how to run a large mental health operation in a way that was both caring and efficient. He also had brilliant accounting skills in dealing with money and budgets; he could not only get the money but once he got it he could make it go a long way. When he saw balance sheets he could assess them very quickly and see if they were skewed in any way and correct them.”
Novels and horses
Though he spent the bulk of his working life away from Galway, the city remained dear to him. “Robert was a dyed-in-the-wool Galway man,” Morahan declares. “Moreover, many of the skills I am talking about he picked up in UCG when he was a student there. He was the auditor of the Lit and Deb Society and editor of Unity and he acquired writing and debating skills there and was very active in student politics. That was his apprenticeship in management as well as medicine.
"We started there together in 1965 and became friends almost from the first day. Robert was both an arts and a science man. He was reading novels non-stop while he was doing his medical degree; he was also very interested in film, theatre and music. Right from the beginning he was giving proof of his ability to operate in more than one sphere.”
'He was a very strong social democrat, a champion of justice and equality. In going to London and working in the NHS he was taking on a medical career path that he could reconcile with his general political outlook'
Horseracing was another passion of Dolan’s and he would always return home for the Galway Races. “There wasn’t a single year that he didn’t come back to Galway at least once, sometimes he and his family came back twice,” Morahan notes. “He delighted in walking the old highways and byways of his youth. In his very last year, 2016, he came back to Galway for the races in July (he died in December ) though his illness was at an advanced stage. He met with a group of his old friends and went around his old haunts like Clybaun, in Knocknacarra, where he had been born.
"He revisited those places at that sad time knowing that he would not be seeing them again. His passion for horseracing stemmed from his time as a boy when his father used to take him to the Galway Races. The two of us first went to Cheltenham together in 1986, the year Dawn Run won the Gold Cup. We were just by the winning post as she started making her move about 200 metres from the finish. I remember Robert was beside himself jumping up and down. We both felt we were present at an epic event.”
A political radical
Dolan was also a politically committed person. “He was a political radical, he was on the left of the Labour Party and he canvassed for Michael D Higgins in his early campaigns," says Morahan. "He was a very strong social democrat, a champion of justice and equality. In going to London and working in the NHS he was taking on a medical career path that he could reconcile with his general political outlook and I think that there is a straight line between his activism as a student and his work as a forensic psychiatrist and medical administrator. He set up a service in east London that had some of the poorest and most ethnically diverse communities in the whole city.”
Robert Dolan was a son of Galway of whom the city can be very proud, just as he himself was a proud Galwegian. Perhaps some permanent memorial to his name might be erected here, or in the university, to acknowledge his achievements and deep connection with his homeplace.
I’d like to conclude this article by acknowledging the encouragement of Robert’s family – his wife Jean, their children Joe and Clara, and his stepsons Amrit and Simran – who were keen that Robert’s life story should be recalled and reclaimed by the people and city he loved so much.