Fearon, William Robert (1892–1959), biochemist, was born 14 October 1892 in Holles St., Dublin, the only son of a presbyterian minister, William Fearon of Kells, Co. Meath, and Nannie Fearon (neé Morrow). His father died when he was very young and from the age of 3 he lived with his mother at 4, Clarinda Park North, Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire). She was devoted to him and took a passionate interest in his developing career. Educated at St Andrews College, Dublin (1908–11), he entered TCD in 1911. Having received his BA in natural science (1915) he entered medical school, although it was several years before he took his medical degree. As an aside to his medical studies he took a foundation scholarship in experimental science and won the vice-chancellor's prize for English verse in 1917. He also received the Harvey research prize from the Royal College of Physicians, Dublin (1918), and the Carmichael prize from the Royal College of Surgeons, Dublin. For two years (1917–19) he worked as a researcher for the British food ministry and the food investigations board (UK) and was awarded Sc.D. (1919) by the University of Dublin. Research beckoned him further and he spent two years (1919–21) as Mackinnon research student of the Royal Society, studying biochemistry under Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins, professor of biochemistry, at Emmanuel College, Cambridge (BA 1921). Hopkins was the father of British biochemistry and a pioneer in vitamin research, being awarded the Nobel prize for medicine in 1929. He no doubt influenced the young Irishman in his research endeavours and experimental methodology. Fearon returned to Ireland in 1921 with a reputation as a brilliant research worker and was elected to a fellowship in TCD. He became so involved in his scientific work that he did not take his medical degree till 1929.
At the time he was regarded as a pioneer in biochemistry; he wrote Introduction to biochemistry (1934; 4th ed. 1961), a successful textbook, and he received the Buckston Browne prize from the Harveian Society in 1935. In 1943 the chair of biochemistry in TCD was founded for him, a position that he held till his death. His special interest lay in the study of nutrition and public health. His Nutritional factors in disease (1936) was one of his many publications covering a broad spectrum of topics from vitamins, wheat extraction, and fluoridation of water to the autolysis of yeast and other aspects of analytical chemistry. However, despite his earlier success he did not achieve the scientific distinction in his career that he and many of his friends had expected and hoped for. He was regarded as a brilliant and inspiring lecturer, but also as a remarkable man who only partly realised his potential. His work was sporadic and it is said he never settled down to do any serious continuous laboratory work. His ambitions led to his nomination as an unsuccessful candidate for provost of TCD in 1952; it is said that he did not have the push to be effective and tended to avoid controversy.
Outside of his academic role he held several consultancy positions including physiologist to the Royal City of Dublin Hospital and biochemist to the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin. He was a member of the Medical Research Council of Ireland; fellow of the Royal Institute of Chemistry; MRIA (1923) and member of council (1922–43); fellow of the Royal Academy of Medicine (Ireland), and honorary professor of chemistry, Royal Hibernian Academy. Despite his shy manner he represented TCD in Seanad Éireann for many years (1943–59) and sat on many government committees. His programme for senate election included national health and improved dietary standards, food production, and applied education. His quiet wit and sense of irony held attentive audiences, and some politicians were unsure of how to take him. When asked his opinion on the viability of early sugar-beet plans, he answered unsmilingly: ‘Well, you know, if the farmers don't make money out of sugar beet, they may raise Cain’ (Ir. Times, 1959).
His interests were wide, and despite his aloofness he had a large circle of friends. Often he would bring together a mixed gathering of writers, academics, comedians, and students. He was an extremely polished after-dinner speaker, and according to R. B. McDowell (personal communication), ‘could be both witty and serious, the best I ever heard’. He played the piano, wrote poetry, was a theatre-lover and playwright, and had an unexpected interest in music-hall songs. His attachment to Ireland ran deep, and his play ‘Parnell of Avondale’ (1937) evoked a dream of a future Ireland of toleration and reconciliation. Unfairly, the play failed to attract the public – due, it was said, to a poor production by the Abbey. His detachment or restlessness on social occasions often led to his early departure, with the excuse of attending his mother, with whom he lived in Dún Laoghaire. However, he continued the habit after her death and this behaviour became known as ‘committing a Fearon’ (McDowell).
His closest friend in later years was George O'Brien (qv), whom he had met through membership of the RIA and who also was a senator. They had a lot in common, both having spent their childhoods in pre-war Kingstown and being only sons of widowed mothers. There is a story of their ordering a meal and a bottle of wine in the oireachtas restaurant, on a break from the senate. On noticing everyone else drinking tea, they self-consciously asked for the wine to be served in a teapot and poured into teacups. Victor Millington Synge (qv), a friend from his schooldays, described him as ‘an enigma – a modest, cultured, and delightful personality, a friend whom one never really got to know or understand’ (Ir. Jn. Med.Sc., Jan. 1960). However, McDowell and Webb (1982; 454), had some less positive comments: ‘ At an early age he fell, rather unfortunately, under the influence of Oliver Gogarty (qv), and tried, as Gogarty did with some success, to become a complete renaissance man. But Fearon was shy and timid, and would not have lasted long in the world of Rabelais and Machiavelli. He would have been more at home in the seventeenth century with Sir Thomas Browne or the early members of the Royal Society.' After a short illness he died 27 December 1959 at Monkstown Hospital, Co. Dublin; he never married.