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Dr. Eilish Cleary, then New Brunswick's acting chief medical officer of health, announced at a press conference on Sept. 8, 2008, a confirmed case of listeriosis in New Brunswick.STEPHEN MACGILLIVRAY/The Canadian Press

In fall 2012, Dr. Eilish Cleary, chief medical officer of New Brunswick, issued an 82-page report on the public-heath implications of fracking to harvest shale gas, including those related to air pollution, water contamination and noise.

A few months later, Deborah Carr, president of the New Brunswick Anti-Shale Gas Alliance, invited her to speak. “To have a chief medical officer of health agree to come speak to your community was something to start with. I was impressed that she showed up.”

Over dinner beforehand, Dr. Cleary revealed that her bosses told her the visit was putting her job in jeopardy. “She told them that the citizens of New Brunswick are my patients, and if my patients want to speak to me, I’m going to go.”

Three years later, when Dr. Cleary was researching another public-health concern, she was suddenly terminated from her job. She had been studying glyphosate, a herbicide used in the forest industry that the International Agency for Research on Cancer had recently classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Public-health officials from across the country and local groups unsuccessfully called for her reinstatement. She settled with the government and never spoke publicly or even privately about what happened.

“What impressed me about her was her grace under fire,” Ms. Carr says.

Dr. Cleary died of ovarian cancer on March 22. She was 60.

She was one of the first physicians in Canada to warn of the health risks of fracking. The drilling technique, which involves fracturing rock deep underground to extract shale gas, is under a moratorium in most of New Brunswick and banned in both Quebec and her native Ireland.

Until her dismissal, Dr. Cleary also led the health conversation about glyphosate. Several months after Dr. Cleary left the job, Dr. Jennifer Russell, New Brunswick’s acting chief medical officer of health, released a report on the herbicide. “Our review found no increased risk for New Brunswickers exposed to glyphosate in our province,” Dr. Russell said.

Public-health officials usually focus on straightforward health issues, but Dr. Cleary went further. “That report [on fracking] was really outside of the norm. She was forward thinking, saying how fracking was going to impact the health of New Brunswickers in the future,” Ms. Carr says. “Even today the report she did is a model for protecting the public’s health when it comes to any kind of industrial activity.”

She is remembered for her professionalism under duress.

“She was calm. She was calm before she died, too,” says Dr. Ann Harvey, a friend and colleague. “She went through a marriage breakup, a career breakup and came out smiling on the other side. She just kept going on.”

Dr. Cleary could deftly communicate complex ideas. “She always spoke so honestly and confidently,” Ms. Carr says. “She appealed to our intelligence. She inspired the public to think and consider their choices and how their choices influence their health.”

She took a matter-of-fact approach when the province was dealing with H1N1 in 2009; 40 per cent of New Brunswickers were vaccinated, the second-highest rate in the country.

After she was terminated in 2015, she was called on by other regions to fill in key public-health roles. She worked in Nova Scotia and the Yukon briefly and in 2022, she served as acting chief public health officer in Prince Edward Island, where she informed the public about the continuing threat of COVID-19 and vaccine availability.

At the age of 22, Dr. Cleary was the youngest person to qualify as a doctor in Ireland, her home country. Early in her career, Dr. Cleary treated patients in rural Ireland and, as a medical student, she did a short rotation in Africa, the first of several visits to the continent to deliver medical care.

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Eilish Cleary, left, with her partner, Paul Meyer.Supplied

She later spent a year in Sierra Leone treating patients while her husband, Gerard Beirne, acted as a hospital administrator.

“That experience really helped her in public health. You’re communicating to different people from different places,” Mr. Beirne says.

She came to Canada in 1998 for a job at the hospital in Norway House, a Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba, where she learned about Canada’s Indigenous peoples. When she first arrived in New Brunswick, fellow physician Dr. Doug Varty says he heard she immediately went to visit Grand Chief Ron Tremblay of the Wolastoqey Nation, and simply asked him to tell her about his people. (When she was ill, the chief performed a special smudging ceremony for her.)

Her compassionate approach served her when she went to Nigeria and Sierra Leone with the World Health Organization to help with the Ebola outbreak. That work earned her the President’s Award from the Public Health Physicians of Canada in 2016.

She spoke out about her concerns at that time, telling the Canadian Medical Association Journal that the Public Health Agency of Canada was remiss in not deploying teams of experts to Africa, plus its travel restrictions were not helping. “We have a role to play to balance the fears in the community. Just standing by and allowing policies to be made that don’t make sense from a health perspective is in itself a bit negligent,” she was quoted as saying in fall 2015.

She was fearless in her criticisms of the authorities while being extremely caring for family, friends and patients. “She’d be very preoccupied if she thought someone was unwell,” her sister Siobhán Cleary says.

Mr. Beirne says Dr. Cleary was a skilled diagnostician who could often tell just by looking at someone if they were sick. In Sierra Leone, she had to refer patients if they were suspected of having Lassa fever, and Dr. Cleary heard feedback that, indeed, all the cases she referred tested positive.

Eilish Cleary was born in Dublin on Oct. 22, 1963, to parents John and Mary, who owned a coffee shop in Malahide. She was the middle child, with four siblings: Kevin, Bríd, Fiona and Siobhán. They all worked at the coffee shop while growing up. “We really learned how to deal with the public. You learned to talk to anybody,” Siobhán says.

She recalls Eilish always having a book in her hand, but she was also sporty, playing on the badminton team. She had always wanted to be a doctor, following in the footsteps of an aunt. At the time, children could start school at the age of 3 if they had a late-in-the-year birthday, so Eilish ended up finishing her schooling and qualifying very young.

Dr. Cleary began working as a family doctor. Soon after she and Mr. Beirne married, in 1989, they went to Sierra Leone. She then took some time off to go to the United States for a year while Mr. Beirne did his master’s degree. Back in Ireland, she practised family medicine, eventually moving into public health in Dublin.

“We were looking for one last adventure,” Mr. Beirne recalls, when they decided to go to Northern Manitoba for 18 months. They stayed three years.

With housing prices soaring in Ireland at the time, they decided to stay in Canada, and moved to Southern Manitoba where Dr. Cleary worked again in public health. The family now included children James, Luke and Sorcha, and their youngest, Cormac, was born during this time. Meanwhile, Dr. Cleary completed a master’s in community health, often taking the baby to campus with her.

In 2007, the family moved to New Brunswick, with Dr. Cleary taking on the assistant chief medical officer role, and moving up into the top job not long after.

She and Mr. Beirne divorced around the same time as her termination, and he returned to Ireland. Colleagues such as Dr. Varty and Dr. Harvey connected her to roles in family medicine and hospital care, respectively.

“It took no time for her to get up to speed,” says Dr. Varty, who recalls the patients loving her. Dr. Harvey similarly reports that Dr. Cleary quickly got back on track treating patients.

Over the next few years, Dr. Cleary took a job in the federal government focusing on Indigenous health issues, filled in for other doctors in locum positions and served in various temporary roles in public health.

She also met Paul Meyer, and took advantage of a less intense work schedule to travel and explore outdoor activities with him – she had always enjoyed camping. He taught her whitewater rafting, which is a challenging sport to master late in life.

On a road trip to Panama in a clunky old car, Mr. Meyer says, Dr. Cleary made it possible to navigate any situation. “Her background in public health and in Africa helped. She knew how to deal with authorities. She just knew how to talk to people.”

Dr. Cleary leaves her partner, mother, siblings and children.

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Editor’s note: A photo caption in this obituary previously misidentified Dr. Eilish Cleary's partner, Paul Meyer. This error has been corrected.

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