We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.

PA Archive/Press Association Images

Opinion How many hundreds, or thousands, would have been saved if he had lived?

The senseless death of Gordon Hamilton Fairley, a pioneering cancer specialist who was killed by an IRA bomb, remains a tragedy for us all.

EVERY YEAR, AT at the European Society of Medical Oncology Conference, a leading European cancer investigator is awarded the Hamilton Fairley medal and prize for their contribution to cancer research. This year the award went to Heikki Joensuu, a Finnish oncologist who has made important contributions to the treatment of breast, digestive, and other cancers.

Few Irish people will be aware of the existence of the award, or will have heard of the researcher that it memorialises – Professor Gordon Hamilton Fairley. It is right that he is remembered, and although no Irish researcher has as yet been awarded the prize that bears his name, it is particularly fitting that we should be remember him today.

Gordon Hamilton Fairley, cancer specialist and professor of cancer research at St Bart’s Medical School, died on this day 39 years ago, the innocent victim of an IRA bomb which was planted outside his home in central London. He was the first professor of medical oncology in the United Kingdom, and the only medical doctor to die a violent death in the Northern Ireland Troubles.

Killed in a struggle he had no part of

On that Friday morning back in 1975, while walking his dogs, Professor Hamilton Fairley spotted something suspicious under his neighbour’s car, and went to investigate. This was the time when the London Active Service Unit of the Provisional IRA was at its most lethally active.

Between 1974 and 1975, under the command of IRA quartermaster Brian Keenan, this unit detonated 40 bombs across London, killing 35 people, mostly civilians. Scores more were injured. Less than two weeks prior to Professor Hamilton Fairley’s death, the IRA had detonated a bomb at the bus stop outside Green Park Tube Station, which had killed 23-year-old Graham Tuck, and injured 20 more, including children.

Gordon Hamilton Fairley, an Australian by birth, was innocent collateral damage in a struggle he had no part of. The bomb did not even have a military target. Its intended victim was his neighbour, the Conservative MP Hugh Fraser who was, incidentally, a Roman Catholic.

Gordon’s inquisitive nature, one of the most valuable attributes for a scientist, may have contributed to this tragedy. As his brother put it, it was in Gordon’s nature to “spot all the odd things and decide immediately to do something about them”. The device detonated when it was disturbed.

The ‘collateral damage’ might have included Caroline Kennedy

He had encouraged his wife Daphne to take a foreign trip, and had taken his own holidays during the mid-term break so that he could look after their home and their children. Thus was he walking the dogs that fateful day.

Sadly, for the Hamilton Fairley family, for the future of British oncology, and for the patients who might have been benefited from his efforts, this Australian who worked in England, was murdered by Irish nationalists.

Even at the time of his death, this great man continued saving lives. Caroline Kennedy, the only daughter of President John F Kennedy was staying in the Fraser’s House, as was their au pair. If Gordon had not discovered the bomb, they, not he, might have been the collateral damage.

From the perspective of someone who works in the field that Professor Hamilton Fairley helped found, I wonder how many hundreds, or how many thousands, or more, would have been saved had he been free to live. He was a pioneer in the field of immunotherapy, the attempt to harness the natural power of the body’s own immune system to kill cancerous tumours. One of the cancer types he studied was melanoma, an often cured but potentially lethal form of skin cancer.

His senseless death led to other tragedies

His loss to British oncology is widely recognised as being substantial. At the time of his death, the need for a separate speciality “medical oncology”, cancer doctors who treated the disease with drugs as opposed to surgery or radiation, was not universally recognised. Britain famously was slow to adopt this model, and cancer survival rates there are generally recognised as being somewhat disappointing. Cause and effect? Who knows?

His senseless death led to other tragedies. Gordon’s friend, Ross McWhirter, co-founder of the Guinness Book of Records, asked the Home Office to fund a bounty for information which led to the arrest of those responsible for the London bombing campaign. Having failed to secure the money from the government, he led a public campaign to raise the funds by private means. The London IRA Active Service Unit assassinated Ross McWhirter outside his home by shooting him four times in the head and chest.

If he was less generous to his family, less concerned about the welfare of his neighbours, more selfish in his professional life – he declined Queen Elizabeth’s offer to be her personal physician – it is likely that he would have lived a longer life.

Gordon Hamilton Fairley mentored and educated many of the leadership generation of British oncology, and his legacy survives through the people whose careers he inspired.

Continuing to inspire 

As a result of a personal cancer scare in 1965, which he feared might lead to his death, he cultivated an independence, not characteristic of that era, in his wife Daphne. After his death his she went on to found and run the Fairley House school for children with dyslexia and dyspraxia.

His daughter, Diana Hamilton Fairley is an obstetrician at Guy’s and St Thomas’ in London, she campaigned in favour of the Good Friday agreement, despite the knowledge that its passage would lead to the release of her father’s killers. Another son is himself involved in cancer research.

The London Active Service Unit continued their campaign until they were spotted by an undercover police patrol while shooting up Scott’s Oyster Bar, a restaurant where they had previously killed John Bately, and injured 15 others, by throwing a bomb through the window.

They fled the scene chased by police until they holed up in the council flat, on Balcombe Street, of John and Sheila Matthews, whom they took hostage for six days. It was this siege that gave this IRA unit the name “The Balcombe Street Gang”.

What advances might have occurred earlier had he lived?

Sadly, even after their arrest innocents were being hurt by the gang’s actions. The blameless Guilford Four and the Maguire Seven were collectively sentenced to four life sentences, and 64 years in jail respectively. Guiseppe Conlon did not live to see freedom.

Nearly 40 years after Gordon Hamilton Fairley’s tragic death, the immune treatments that he dreamed of have proven their efficacy in melanoma and are being actively investigated in other cancer types. Many Irish patients have benefitted from them. One can only speculate as to whether these advances might have occurred earlier had he lived.

The memorial plaque to Gordon Hamilton Fairley states “what matters is not how a man dies, but how he lives”.

If all lives were lived as well as his, the world would be a better place.

John Crown is a consultant oncologist at St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin and a Senator representing the National University of Ireland. Follow him Twitter @profjohncrown

Read: “I remember looking at him and thinking – you’re not my idea of a terrorist”

Your Voice
Readers Comments
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.