Dunican, Laurence Kieran (‘L. Kieran’) (1935–98), microbiologist, was born 29 January 1935 at 92 Marlborough Road, Donnybrook, Dublin, eldest among three sons and two daughters of James Joseph Dunican, teacher and dairy farmer of Horseleap, Co. Westmeath, and Mary Lucy Dunican (née Kavanagh), nurse and music teacher. His maternal grandfather was Michael Kavanagh, creamery manager of Inch, Gorey, Co. Wexford. Kieran's godmother, his mother's sister, Bridget Mary Kavanagh, married (1940) Charles Bateman (KCMG 1950), British ambassador to Cairo, Mexico, and Warsaw.
His family home was in Ardcath, Co. Meath, and he went to the local national school (1940–48), where his father was headmaster. He went to secondary school at St Finian's College, Mullingar (1948–53), before studying agricultural science at UCD (B.Ag.Sc. 1957, M.Ag.Sc. 1958). His career in microbiology began when he moved to Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, where he was awarded M.Sc. (1960) and Ph.D. (1963) and received the ‘Phi kappa phi’ award (1960). After registering as a post-doctoral fellow at Cornell in 1963, he returned to Ireland that same year as assistant to Professor M. E. Folan at the department of bacteriology (UCG) at Galway regional hospital, and was later appointed lecturer in microbiology (1965). In 1968 he moved to the main UCG campus, where he established the first microbiology department in Ireland, later becoming professor (1971). After an extensive fire damaged the buildings (1978), the department was rebuilt beside the River Corrib (1988).
A pioneer researcher in anaerobic and soil microbiology, Dunican contributed to the understanding of the genetics and ecology of the soil nitrogen-fixing bacterium Rhizobium, for which his research group received international recognition. In 1973 he proposed a plasmid location for the symbiotic genes of fast growing rhizobia. His proposal was received with scepticism, but was in time proven to be correct. He was particularly interested in the practical application of many aspects of microbiology. In 1975 he was involved in the design and development of fixed-film hybrid digestors for the production of methane from agricultural and dairy wastes, and was awarded the inaugural Irish research and innovation award by the National Board for Science and Technology (NBST) (1979). In the 1980s he concentrated on the genetic basis for amino acid production by bacteria of the Corynebacterium genus, developing international collaboration in this area and attracting substantial EEC support. In the late 1980s he produced a number of reports on the microbiology of peat-based biofilters for Bord na Mona.
An excellent lecturer, he taught microbiology courses with enthusiasm and distinction to students from various faculties. As the department grew, it became a leader in a range of research areas, led by his wide knowledge of microbiology. An inspiring and enthusiastic supervisor, he advised students yet allowed them to be innovative in their findings. Many of them later became colleagues and friends, achieving key positions in academia and industry in Ireland and abroad.
He authored chapters of several books in addition to numerous research papers. A full list of his publications is found on the National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) web page. Through his membership of several organisations he promoted the teaching of microbiology and greater public awareness of microbiology-related issues: the Irish branch of the Society of General Microbiology (which he was instrumental in establishing), the RIA (1986), the Medical Research Council, the American Society of Microbiology, and the Federation of University Teachers. He served on the governing body of NUI Galway (as UCG became in 1997), as well as several scientific committees, expert groups and review panels both in Ireland and in Europe. He was also very involved with a number of advisory bodies; was a member of the first Recombination DNA committee (1981) set up by the NBST to advise the government on genetic engineering; was former chairman of the advisory committee on genetically modified organisms (1996) to advise the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on GMO issues; and was appointed to EOLAS (1987). In a private capacity he was director of Emerald Environmental Systems and Biomass International, Cumbria.
Affectionately called ‘Prof’ by his students, he was ‘the gentle giant of the UCG microbiology department’ (Ir. Times, 18 Sept. 1998), and was remembered for his kindness, fairness, great enthusiasm for life, and camaraderie. Though he was a private person, not given to publicity, a number of his past students became close friends, including Professors Maura and Frank Cannon, University of Massachusetts, USA; Tom McLoughlin, EPA; P. J. Newell, Co. Galway; and Paddy Cunningham, TCD. Outside his work his interests were Gaelic football, handball, golf, and music. In his early days he was a member of the team of St Vincent's GAA club that won the Meath senior football championship (1955), and was later a member of Galway golf club. But above all, his work and his family came first. He married (30 December 1965) Rita, daughter of Joseph Brennan, merchant, and his wife Mary (née O'Dea), businesswoman, both of Galway city. Rita had been a student in the first class he taught. She went on to become a teacher, later working in the education department of UCG. They had three children. After a long illness he died 18 April 1998 at home in Galway, aged 63.