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February 5, 2016

University Mourns John Fennessy, Groundbreaking Radiologist

John James Fennessy, M.B., B.Ch., former chair of the University of Chicago department of radiology and professor emeritus, passed away on January 3 at the age of 82. A leader in the field of chest radiology, Fennessy was known for his expertise in radiologic examinations of the chest and abdomen and for his skill in interpreting X-rays.

He passed away in RML Specialty Hospital in Hinsdale from complications due to a cardiac surgery he had in November 2015.

He created the innovative “bronchial brush” which allowed radiologists to obtain better tissue samples from difficult to reach places in the chest.  His technique, which was widely used in the United States and abroad, was published in a paper in 1966, and expanded on an earlier Japanese technique.

Steven Montner, associate professor of radiology at UChicago, who trained under Fennessy, describes him as having been brilliant and patient.

“As with many students before, he guided me into radiology, but it was due less to the science and more because of him,” Montner said in a eulogy at Fennessy’s funeral.

Fennessy was looked up to by students and colleagues alike, winning the McClintock Award for Outstanding Teaching in 1968. He was also voted favorite faculty member by graduating medical students almost 30 times between 1967 and 2001. 

“Even when he was chairman for many years he would happily spend many hours with students and residents reviewing cases and teaching them about chest radiology,” Doctor Heber MacMahon, professor of radiology at the University said. “He was also very interested in guiding them in their careers.”

His daughter, Dierdre Fennessy, recalled his impeccable sense of style and keen interest in all subjects. “He is a Renaissance man in every sense, a true raconteur and an authority on seemingly every arcane subject under the sun,” she said in an e-mail.

His son, Niall Fennessy, described him as a profound reader, with a fierce love of Ireland.

John Fennessy was born in Clonmel, Ireland, where he graduated medical school at the Glenstal Abbey School and University College, Dublin in 1958.

Although he began interning in Dublin as well, he soon moved to the United States to complete his training at Mercy Hospital in Chicago in 1959. In 1960, he made his way to the University of Chicago, where he worked for the next 45 years.  He became a full professor in 1974.

He taught his children Irish history from an early age and had a large collection of historical artifacts from Ireland’s struggle for independence.

“It had not been his intention to remain here, but his love for the university was such that he became a Hyde Parker through and through,” Niall Fennessy said in an e-mail.

“We will miss him, but we are bringing him back there [to Ireland], where his memory can walk along the shore at low tide, hunt in the exposed reefs for shellfish, and walk through the Nire to the broad shouldered Mahon Falls overlooking the wet soft land that suffered the ancient Viking raids,” he said.

The family plans to inter him at St Mary’s Church, Dungarvan, County Waterford on March 30, 2016, amidst family and friends.

“The church sits atop the town with a view of both the mountains and sea. Built in the 1820s, St. Mary’s is one of the many places he took us as children to appreciate history,” Niall Fennessy said. “He would have found it an absolutely appropriate place of rest.”

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