Leahy, Patrick Joseph (1917–98), general practitioner and medical campaigner, was born 13 March 1917 at the Mall, Thurles, Co. Tipperary, the son of William Leahy, a self-made man and architect cum engineer, and Margaret Leahy (née Doyle). One of eight children, he was born into a wealthy family at a time of economic gloom and enjoyed a privileged upbringing. His father, whom he admired greatly, encouraged him while he was still a young man to read the works of the great humanist philosopher Bertrand Russell, and this had a profound influence on him. Educated at CBS Thurles and then at Mount St Joseph's in Roscrea, he entered the RCSI to study medicine, graduating L and LM with first-class honours in 1944 in the conjoint degree of the RCPI and the RCSI. He came first in his year as well as winning the McNaughton Jones gold medal in midwifery and obstetrics.
Soon after graduation Leahy went to wartime Britain, where he was first a resident at the Municipal General Hospital in Coventry (1944–8) and then a resident obstetrical officer at Lake Hospital, Ashton under Lyne (1949–63). From 1959 onwards he became interested in returning to Ireland, and the opportunity came when he was appointed district medical officer at Ballyfermot health centre in an underprivileged suburb of Dublin. During his time in Ballyfermot (1964–88) he earned the enormous respect of his patients as well as a reputation as a controversial campaigner on a number of social issues that were still taboo in Irish society, most notably contraception, the right of women to choose with regard to pregnancy, and euthanasia. A regular guest on television and radio throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he achieved a reputation as an outspoken and articulate defender of personal freedom. Though he was not the first doctor to be prosecuted under the 1979 Family Planning Act, which prohibited the distribution of contraceptives to anyone except married couples, Leahy very publicly flouted the law when he continued to distribute them through his practice, vowing to go to jail rather than stop. In March 1995 he gained further notoriety when he revealed he had helped a friend to die by administering a lethal injection; a huge controversy erupted. This was further compounded when he revealed that he regularly received requests from terminally ill people to assist them in dying and that he had helped them, over a long period in Ireland and during the war in England, to carry out their wishes. However, despite complaints to the police and the Irish Medical Council, as well as a demand by Leahy himself to be called before its fitness to practice committee, no civil or criminal action was ever taken against him.
Articulate, fearless, and outspoken, Leahy often dismissed the opinions of his peers in the medical profession as unfounded rubbish. He said that the experience of working in Ballyfermot health centre had humbled him enormously and given him the opportunity to make a difference to people's lives. An agnostic and a humanist whose outlook on life was deeply influenced by the writings of Robert Green Ingersoll and Bertrand Russell, he had an abhorrence both of bigotry and of the suffering brought about by alcohol abuse; he constantly urged people to think and to question what they were told. His compassion for human suffering, together with his belief that you get your happiness by giving it to others, was his raison d'être. This ensured a wide circle of admirers and friends, which included fellow medical man Noel Browne (qv) and the socialist Michael D. Higgins.
Although his work consumed his life, Leahy maintained a passionate interest in hurling; he had played as a minor for Tipperary in the 1930s. While he was married (he had a son and a daughter), he separated from his wife, and relations with his family were occasionally strained for the remainder of his life. The notoriety that marked his career as a doctor continued until the end. Towards the latter part of 1997 he was suffering from a recurrence of cancer of the bladder when he announced on radio that he would end his life before Christmas while on a holiday in Thailand. Media coverage of his trip resulted in his being requested to leave Thailand by the Thai medical council, and he returned to Ireland. He died a year later, on 17 December 1998, aged eighty-one. In Seanad Éireann his death was noted by senators Joe O'Toole and David Norris, who both paid tribute to his moral courage and his contribution to social reform and democracy in Ireland. O'Toole referred to him as ‘a catalyst to extraordinary debate and emotion’ and as having ‘made us face our demons and confront taboos’ (Seanad Éireann debates).