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Dr. Rory Childers, U. of C. heart expert who treated Brendan Behan, dead at 83


A world-renowned expert on electrocardiograms, Dr. Rory Childers was also the son of Ireland's fourth president and the grandson of Erskine Childers, a strong backer of a united Ireland who was executed by firing squad in the country's civil war in 1922.
Dr. Rory Childers was an expert on heart disease who helped set the standards for interpreting electrocardiograms that guided first-responders on life-saving action.
His work “had a huge impact in clinical care, in emergency rooms and intensive-care units across the world,” said Dr. Martin Burke, a colleague at the University of Chicago, where Dr. Childers taught for half a century.
“He standardized the interpretation of the electrocardiogram through mathematical analysis,” Burke said, which led to more accurate readings and more timely and targeted treatment.
Dr. Childers, 83, died Aug. 27 after a heart attack while vacationing in East Hampton, New York.
The Dublin-raised physician had wide interests beyond his work, most notably literature. He already spoke English, Irish, French and German when he decided to study Russian out of love for the novels of Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, whose work he wrote about in scholarly journals. And every year on “Bloomsday” — June 16 — Dr. Childers was among the performers who read James Joyce’s monumental novel “Ulysses” at the Cliff Dwellers club in downtown Chicago.
At the University of Chicago, he won the cardiology department’s “teacher of the year” award with such regularity the honor was renamed the Rory Childers Teaching Award. He kept students and fellow professors laughing, according to the University of Chicago Magazine, telling them the irreverent nicknames Dubliners bestowed on their city’s monuments to Anna Liffey, peddler Molly Malone, Dublin’s waterways, a clock and two women shoppers. They were, respectively: “the floozy in the Jacuzzi, the tart with the cart, the box in the docks, the chime in the slime and the hags with the bags.”
He came from a renowned Anglo-Irish family. In 1973, his father, Erskine Hamilton Childers, was elected president of Ireland. His English grandfather, Robert Erskine Childers, was an Irish nationalist executed in 1922 during the civil war that followed the partition of Ireland. With dashing last words, the grandfather told the firing squad, “Take a step or two forwards, lads. It will be easier that way.”
In July, Dr. Childers accepted an invitation from Irish President Michael D. Higgins to attend a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of a gun-running operation by the doctor’s grandfather and grandmother, Molly Childers, who brought weapons to Ireland — later used in the 1916 uprising against British rule — on their boat.
The Irish president expressed “great sadness” at Dr. Childers’ death.
“A distinguished academic, many tributes have been paid to him for his path-breaking work as a cardiologist and his teaching at the University of Chicago,” Higgins said. “He had a vast knowledge of Irish literature, and, as a raconteur, his sense of humor has been recalled since his death on 27th August.”
Dr. Childers received simultaneous degrees in English and French while attending medical school at Trinity College, said his son, Peter.
He operated the first cardiac catheterization lab in Dublin, according to his wife, Michele, who met him at a wedding party in New York for mutual friends.
“I thought he was a great conversationalist,” Michele Childers said. “Toward the end of the party, he said, ‘Well, this party seems to be winding down. Where are we going for dinner?’ As if we’d known each other forever . . . Six months later. we were married and moved to Ireland.”
In Ireland, Dr. Childers was writer and poet Brendan Behan’s physician. Behan was a frequent dinner guest at the Childers home and drank only soda water when he was there, nothing stronger.
“He told Rory he ‘wouldn’t drink in front of Michele’ — ‘That would be terrible,’ ” Michele Childers said,
“We were very heartbroken when he died,” she said of Behan. “He had diabetes, and Rory tried valiantly to convince him to stop drinking. But, you know, he was who he was. Rory had lots of stories about him. I wish I could hear him tell them again.”
She and her husband came to Chicago in the early 1960s, when Dr. Childers took a post as a fellow in cardiology at the University of Chicago.
They raised sons Peter and Daniel in a home where dinner conversation revolved around literature, history and medicine.
“His intellect and openness to creative work and knowledge was a marvelous thing to grow up with,” Peter Childers said.
“I just feel so lucky to be raised by someone so passionately engaged with life and who showed us by example all the different ways your life could be enriched by both the sciences and the arts,” Daniel Childers said. “Two of his gifts to me were his love of old movies and jazz. I will always think of him when I watch B movies.”
Dr. Childers was an early patron of the Court Theatre, said founding director Nicholas Rudall. Though “primarily one of the greatest cardiologists in the world, he was curious about everything — political, literary, artistic,” Rudall said.
Dr. Paul Kligfield, a professor at Cornell University, said Dr. Childers “was a great teacher.”
“Not only was he a master of interpretation of the electrocardiogram, but he also was a genius at explaining electrocardiography to others in his peer group,” Kligfield said.
Dr. Childers was former president of the International Society for Computerized Electrocardiology, which issued a statement saying, “Rory was an extraordinary man with a rich and remarkable heritage; a dedicated physician, teacher and mentor.”
He also had a talent few knew about, according to his son Peter: “He couldn’t cook, but he could make a bananas flambé. It was a very flamboyant dish, with great fanfare, nearly setting things on fire using brandy.’’
Dr. Childers is also survived by two sisters, Margaret and Carainn, and a half-sister, Irish politician Nessa Childers, a member of the European Parliament. His late brother Erskine Childers was a United Nations official.
A service is being planned at the University of Chicago, where Dr. Childers’ family will play some of his favorite music by jazzman John Coltrane.