Desmond Hugh Grey Irwin was the youngest of three sons, born of Irish parents in Johannesburg. He was proud to have been educated at K.E.S. He was not a good student, suffering as he did with ADD and dyslexia. He always said that the only time he ever passed an Afrikaans exam was in Matric.
After two years at Pietermaritzburg University (where he lived with Professor Alexander Petrie who wrote all the Latin text books of that era), he went on to Onderstepoort, qualifying in 1950. He married Monica Hertzog whilst he was still a student at Onderstepoort and kept the wolf from the door by collecting blood samples from hens at a penny a dozen.
They moved to Somerset West after his graduation where Dieuwke was born in 1953 and Adrienne in 1955. When he left the practice there, the exclusion clause he signed prevented him from working within 100 miles of the area for twenty years – a reflection of his reputation.
In 1956 he went to Canada where he lectured as Assistant Professor of Anatomy in Guelph, Ontario, a position that had been occupied in earlier years by Septimus Sisson.
He returned to Onderstepoort a year later and joined the anatomy department. Later he worked for Dr Fanny Gilchrist in the Department of Rumen Physiology in what he jokingly referred to as his years in plumbing. His work entailed seating catheters in the thoracic duct in sheep so that multiple samples could be collected over time and analysed.
He left Onderstepoort in 1968 having acquired his M.Med Vet degree in surgery.
His plan was to start an equine practice. His real love was the horse, and from 1969 until 1983 he worked for the Jockey Club of South Africa on race days, and in private equine practice for the balance of the week. He used to say that his father, Benjamin (Paddy) Irwin had built the Turffontein race course with the money that he had lost on gambling. To be close to his work, Des based his practice in Newmarket where with his second wife, Wyn Howell, he worked for thirteen years. This was one of the first practices in South Africa restricted to horses only. They had two daughters, Kate born in 1973 and Colleen in 1974. In 1982 they moved to the family farm in Springfontein, Southern Free State.
It was an ideal partnership and marriage. Wyn looked after the merino sheep and ran a small practice, they shared the work on the Red Angus stud they started with cattle imported from Australia and Des bred racehorses. Probably the best horse he ever bred was Queens Choir, winner of the Eastern Cape Derby against a string of colts. But there were many horses bred at Hillside that earned far more in racing than they cost as yearlings.
During his entire professional life Desmond was a teacher and writer. He loved people and inspired them to be better than they thought they could be. He recorded many new techniques and did drug and feed trials and wrote his findings up. He had many articles published in both lay and professional publications. He had a huge range of friends of all ages and retained his interest in people, sport and current events to the end. He had a wonderful zest for life, and a great sense of humour. He was gentle, intellectual, outgoing, friendly and an alternative thinker.
As a lecturer he was the epitome of a gentleman, always with a smile, a word of encouragement for a student and ready to praise genuine effort. He enjoyed nothing more than success in the lives of others.
Des died on 27th April 2010 after a long struggle with Parkinsons disease. He left a wife, four daughters, and 11 grandchildren.