John Fennessy, pioneering radiologist, 1933-2016

Lorna W.S. (Lim) Wong
Director of Media RelationsThe University of Chicago Medicine

John Fennessy, a pioneer in the field of chest radiology, died Jan. 3 from complications following cardiac surgery in November 2015. He was 82.

A professor emeritus and former chair of the Department of Radiology, Fennessy was known by colleagues as the final authority on anything involving radiologic examination of the chest or abdomen, and the person other physicians turned to for interpretation of subtle diagnostic details on X-rays.

Those who trained with Fennessy also recalled his patience, kindness, distinctive sense of humor and genuine respect for medical students and residents. He won the McClintock Award for Outstanding Teaching in 1969 and was selected nearly 30 times as a favorite faculty member by the graduating medical students. 

“He was one of the most thoughtful people I’ve ever met,” said pulmonologist J.P. Kress, professor of medicine at the University of Chicago. “He was generous with his time, down to earth, funny in a kind way and an unbelievably great radiologist. On a tough case, we all wanted his input.”

Whenever his former students get together, “we all agree that we hope, someday, to be just like him,” Kress said. “None of us has quite gotten there yet.”

Fennessy had a direct impact on the field. One of his first papers, published in 1966, expanded on a technique developed in Japan in which radiologists inserted a catheter into the lung to obtain tissue from lesions at the periphery of the bronchial tree. Fennessy’s innovative adaptation, known as the bronchial brush, enabled physicians to acquire better samples from hard-to-reach areas of the lungs, without the need for an incision. His technique was widely disseminated in the United States and abroad.

He also was a founding member of the Society of Thoracic Radiology and a member of the prestigious Fleischner Society, an international, multidisciplinary medical society for thoracic radiology.

“He was sort of a legend,” said Steve Montner, associate professor of radiology at UChicago, who trained under Fennessy. “We were all a little awed by him. He was one of the gods of chest radiography, but he was so kind and gentle, he quickly put patients and trainees at ease.”

John James Fennessy was born March 8, 1933, in Clonmel, Ireland. He was educated at the Glenstal Abbey School and University College, Dublin, where he completed his medical degree in 1958. He began his internship at Mater Misericordiae University Hospital in Dublin, before moving to the United States in 1959 to work as an intern at Mercy Hospital in Chicago.

He came to UChicago as a resident in 1960 and was elected chief resident in his final year, followed by two years on staff as an instructor. In 1965, he joined the faculty as an assistant professor. He was promoted to associate professor in 1968 and professor in 1974.

That year he was named chairman of radiology, a position he held for 10 years. In 1982, Fennessy led the team that designed the department’s clinical facility in Mitchell Hospital, which opened in 1983.

“He was an extremely capable but somewhat reluctant chairman,” recalled Heber MacMahon, who worked with Fennessy for his residency and is now chief of thoracic radiology at UChicago. “He preferred teaching and taking care of patients to administration and battling for resources, but he helped build up the department with a series of excellent recruits and was able to bring in the latest technology for the opening of Mitchell Hospital in 1983.

Fennessy won many honors for his research, teaching and service to the field. He was elected first vice president of the Radiological Society of North America in 1987. He was invited to speak as a visiting professor at universities across the United States as well as in Canada, England, Ireland, Qatar and Taiwan.

He was also the radiologist for a team assembled by UChicago gastroenterologist Joseph Kirsner, which provided medical care for King Hassan II of Morocco for two decades at the University of Chicago and at the royal palace in Rabat, Morocco’s capital.

Family and colleagues cited Fennessy’s many interests outside medicine.

“He was a voracious reader—a habit we all inherited,” said daughter Deirdre Wallace Fennessy. “He lived and breathed medicine, but he also knew and taught us a great deal about the history and literature of Ireland. He stayed in touch with relatives and friends there and often took us to visit. He even kept a small house there, a shack really, with no running water. He particularly enjoyed fly fishing. I think he was happiest out in the woods.”

Fennessy is survived by his wife of 55 years, Ann Mary Ursula; two siblings in Ireland, Nora Stapleton and Cianan Fennessy; and six children: Deirdre Ann, Conor Dermott, Sean Donal, Rona Meabdh, Niall Patrick and Ruairi Brendan. One daughter, Emer Moira, died last year. Dr. Fennessy and his wife have five grandchildren and numerous nephews and nieces.

Funeral services were held on Jan. 11 at St. Thomas the Apostle Church, 5472 S. Kimbark Ave. The family plans to inter his ashes in Ireland.