Michael J. Ryan is an Irish epidemiologist who has expertise in infectious disease and public health. Dr. Ryan holds the position of the Executive Director of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Programme. He has led various outbreak response teams to eradicate and contain the spread of many contagious diseases, such as Ebola, cholera, measles, and SARS. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Ryan led the team responsible for the worldwide treatment and containment of the spread of COVID-19.
Michael Joseph Ryan (full name) was born in 1965 (age 55 years; as in 2020) in County Sligo, Ireland. He grew up in the townland of Curry near Tubbercurry in County Sligo. Ryan’s father, a merchant sailor who spent 25 years at sea, died when Ryan was eleven. Ryan did his medical training at the National University of Ireland in Galway. Thereafter, he moved to Scotland where he did additional training in orthopedics. Dr. Ryan received a Masters of Public Health from University College Dublin. At the Health Protection Agency in London, Ryan completed specialist training in communicable disease control, public health, and infectious disease. Later, he also pursued the European Programme for Intervention Epidemiology Training (EPIET).
Family & Ethnicity
Michael Joseph Ryan belongs to an Irish family of County Sligo.
Parents & Siblings
His father, late Harry Ryan, lived in Charlestown and Curry. Ryan’s father grew up in Tubbercurry before moving to Charlestown; after marriage. Ryan’s mother, Meta, still lives on Main Street, Charlestown. Ryan’s father was a merchant sailor who ran “The Ship Inn” in Charlestown along with Ryan’s mother, Meta.
Relationships, Wife & Children
In 1988, Michael J. Ryan met his future wife, Máire Connolly, in medical school in Galway. After courting for nine years, they married in 1997. Máire Connolly is a doctor and author who specializes in infectious disease and has also worked at the WHO. Máire Connolly also worked as a professor at the National University of Ireland Galway. Michael J. Ryan has three children, including two daughters, Katie and Sorcha.
After completing his additional training in orthopedics in Scotland, Ryan successfully applied for a surgical residency in Australia. However, due to some paperwork issues, his departure to Australia was delayed, and Ryan decided to follow his then-girlfriend, Máire Connolly to Iraq where they would train Iraqi doctors in specialist procedures. At the end of July 1990, Ryan arrived in Baghdad along with his girlfriend Máire Connolly, and three days later, on August 2, a war started between Iraq and Kuwait, followed by the U.S. bombing campaign, and in that situation, all foreign nationals, including Ryan and Máire Connolly, found themselves captives. During that time, Ryan worked at a hospital in Iraq where members of the ruling class used to visit him for treatment. After returning from Iraq, he tried again for the surgical fellowship in Australia, but he couldn’t succeed. Later, he started reading about public health, which eventually led him to make a career in that field. After his master’s degree in public health from University College Dublin and specialist training in communicable diseases, Ryan was inducted into a training program for European epidemiologists where he was assigned to work in Sweden with Giesecke. Before heading to Stockholm, Ryan got a chance to meet David Heymann, an American infectious diseases expert at the WHO, in Geneva. At that time, David Heymann was setting up a new emerging diseases program, and he offered Ryan to work at the WHO. Michael J. Ryan eventually ended up with a full-time job at the WHO. During his initial days at the WHO, Dr. Ryan got an opportunity to work with many public health giants, like the late D.A. Henderson. While talking about it in an interview, Ryan said,
To be sitting in a room with those individuals … for an epidemiologist it was like an audience with rock stars, you know?”
At the WHO, Dr. Ryan worked on countless infectious disease outbreaks, such as SARS, Ebola, cholera, bird flu, and Marburg.
During the 2003 SARS outbreak, Dr. Ryan led the effort to eradicate the spread of the disease. After the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, when the WHO returned to its normative standard-setting, Ryan opposed the move and campaigned for a network that he had proposed earlier; however, he couldn’t succeed, and he left the WHO in 2011. Thereafter, he joined the Global Polio Eradication Program and worked in many countries, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Middle East. In 2017, Dr. Ryan returned to the WHO on the invitation of the WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
From 2017 to 2019, he held the post of the Assistant Director-General for Emergency Preparedness and Response in WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme. In 2019, Michael J. Ryan replaced Peter Salama as the Executive Director of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Programme. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Ryan, along with Maria Van Kerkhove (an American epidemiologist), appeared regularly at the press conferences by the WHO.
- In his youth, Dr. Ryan was a regular visitor to Tubbercurry; visiting his grandfather, Tom Ryan who served in the Garda (the state police force of the Republic of Ireland) in Tubbercurry through the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.
- Before his stint as an epidemiologist, Dr. Ryan was an orthopedic and trauma surgeon.
- He has also worked as a Professor of International Health at University College Dublin.
- Dr. Ryan was one of the key members to found the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network; a network bringing CDC and UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders and other nongovernmental organizations together during the time of an infectious disease outbreak or natural disaster. On the need for such a network, Dr. Ryan says,
It was based on the principle that the capacity is out there. If we put all the major institutions and put all their skills and capacities and their expertise together we have something quite special.”
- His grandmother used to run a book parlor in the town of Tubbercurry where the young Ryan used to often visit and read the newly arrived copy of National Geographic. While recalling his visits to his grandmother’s parlor, which was filled with statues, swords, flags, and mementos collected by his father during his travels, he says,
This room was like a kind of a TARDIS. The idea was you go into this room and all of a sudden you weren’t in this little village in the middle of the west of Ireland, you are in Honolulu. And you were in Sydney and pictures of the Opera House or whatever it was at the time.”
- In 1990, during his stay in Iraq, one weekend, when Ryan and his girlfriend, Máire Connolly, were en route to a lake near the border of Kurdistan, their vehicle was run off the road by a military convoy. In the accident, several vertebrae of Ryan were completely crushed. Thereafter, he had to spend weeks immobilized. While talking about it in an interview, he said,
I could feel my toes but I knew my back was fractured. As they trying to save my life, I’m trying to save my legs.”
- Ryan’s wife, Máire Connolly, joined the WHO in 1995 while Ryan joined it in 1996, and the same day, when Ryan joined the WHO, Máire Connolly was sent to Jakarta for six months. At that time, Connolly’s mother had quoted,
Can’t you two ever stay in one place at the same time?”