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James McCormick was one of the ‘abominable no-men’ who were critical of medicine's involvement in health screening. He preferred to be known as a sceptic and felt that the role of science in medicine was to place limits on our ignorance and to curb our enthusiasm to do good at all costs.
He was sceptical of the population approach to health and feared coercion of the individual by forces hell-bent on doing good. He had a view that individual patients had a right to harm themselves in the pursuit of happiness, provided they did not harm others. He was supported and indeed influenced by a young Petr Skrabanek for whom he provided a liberal intellectual base in Trinity College, Dublin. His relationship with Skrabanek was rich and fruitful. Neither saw the need to get involved in primary research as they saw themselves moderating the frenetic growth of inadequately conducted studies.
James wrote widely and well, always seeming to fear that what humanity existed would be eroded by poorly thought out science and evidence that disadvantaged the individual. He reserved his admiration for the personal doctor who could tailor medical knowledge to the individual patient. He was critical of general practice research, often citing Marshall Marinker's opinion that it ‘provided predictable answers to banal questions’. Given the choice between wisdom and learning James rated wisdom more highly. Medical education he felt, tended to overvalue training and undervalue education, the cultivation of scholarship, and the critical mind.
We will be putting a selection of his papers on our website later in the year for colleagues who want to read considered, scholarly essays that often swam against the prevailing tide.
His funeral service ended with his own commendation:
The timer of my life has nearly run its course
I would the alarm should rudely break the silence
With no hesitation, with no pause, no lingering doubt
Although its progress be remorseless and unstopped.
I retain the right to hope that time is left,
Time to love, time to talk
Time to see my children's children grow.
(James McCormick, 1999).
He is survived by his wife Biddy, four children, and 12 grandchildren.