John Ryan obituary: A true public health champion and mentor

Deputy director general of DG Santé always had an open door. He treated people fairly and listened to what they had to say, colleagues recall

Born: August 8th, 1958

Died: February 6th, 2024

John Ryan, the Dublin-born Luxembourg-based deputy director general of DG Santé, the European Commission division for health, has died following a short illness, aged 65.

Ryan, who was renowned in the EC for his excellent collaborative skills, managed the commission’s Beating Cancer Plan, developed the European Reference Networks for rare diseases and was prominent in the commission’s response to the Covid pandemic.


He also worked with mental health organisations throughout Europe and through the Health Policy Platform developed close ties between researchers and clinicians so that patients could benefit from new discoveries as soon as possible.

During his 40-year career in the commission, his earlier roles involved work on international trade negotiations and the customs union in various directorates-general. In 2001, he became the head of unit at DG Sanco, the predecessor for DG Santé.

While there, he became a true public health champion, with responsibilities for policies on cancer, drug prevention, infectious diseases and health promotion including legislation to control the use of tobacco. He was also instrumental in setting up the HIV/TB/Hepatitis civil society forum, and spoke out for marginalised groups with poor access to healthcare.

Ryan became deputy director general of DG Santé in 2021 and he was the commission’s representative on the boards of the European Union Drugs Agency and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. He was also a board member of the World Bank’s pandemic fund and a fellow of the UK Faculty of Public Health.

Stefan Schreck, the adviser for DG stakeholder relations in DG Santé, worked closely with Ryan in latter years. “For John, it was not just a job. He was always available around the clock and during Covid. He drafted in people from other units and developed an excellent team spirit,” said Schreck. “He always had an open door. He treated people fairly and listened to what they said. If he criticised you, it was because you didn’t collaborate enough with all the organisations in civil society. He always wanted health policies to reflect what citizens expected.”

Sandra Gallina, the director general for health and food safety at the European Commission since 2020, said Ryan was hugely supportive to her in her job. “He was a real pillar for me. When I discussed confidential things with John, I knew they would stay with him and that there would be no leaks.”

Recalling the EC’s response to Covid, she added, “He was available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Covid years. He followed every single element of the epidemiology of Covid to understand its progression.”

Sarah Ironside, an Irish administrator in the EC offices in Brussels worked with Ryan in the early 1990s while he was still based in Brussels. “He was very kind and a very loyal friend. He always remembered people and had time for a chat. He had an amazing intellect. I learned so much from him about the European institutions,” she said.

Other colleagues remember how Ryan was an excellent mentor, giving people opportunities to build their careers and keeping in touch if they moved from DG Santé’s base in Luxembourg to other divisions within the EC in Brussels. He was always keen to make sure that staff in Luxembourg attended important meetings in Brussels so as to maintain the profile of DG Santé as its geographical location meant that it was one step removed from the Belgian capital.

A true European, he was also very committed to Ireland’s involvement in all the European institutions and keen that smaller states benefited from wider European policies.

John Ryan grew up in Dublin 8 the eldest of five children of teacher Cecile and businessman John D Ryan. From childhood, he had a strong sense of social justice and volunteered for humanitarian organisations throughout his life.

Following his secondary school education at Synge Street CBS, Dublin 8, he studied Irish and economics at University College Dublin. He maintained a great love for the Irish language and later also became fluent in Spanish, French, German and Luxembourgish.

Ryan began his public service career in the Revenue Commissioners in Dublin where he worked for five years before moving to Brussels in 1983 at the age of 25.

Throughout his life, he had a great interest in art, literature, theatre and music. His younger brother, Peter – the Irish Ambassador to Nigeria – remembers being “dragged” to every theatre performance in Dublin from a young age. He also travelled widely through Europe and Asia both for work and pleasure, bringing his parents to visit most countries in Europe. “He was the most devoted son, brother and uncle and was best man at many weddings,” said Peter Ryan.

Following the death of his mother 12 years ago, Ryan returned to Dublin often to spend time with his father who continues to live alone at the age of 101.

“During the pandemic, he even worked from Dublin for a while so that he could be with his father,” his brother added.

John Ryan is survived by his father, John D Ryan; and his siblings, Dermot, Jean, Peter and Moya. His mother, Cecile, predeceased him.