Friday, 19 August 2011

Notable University Figures (3): Professor Margaret Fairlie

The story of university education in Dundee has featured many notable women including Mary Ann Baxter, the founder of University College, and Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, who was the first Chancellor of the University of Dundee. Thus it is perhaps not surprising that Scotland's first female professor, the talented Margaret Fairlie, was appointed in Dundee.

Margaret Fairlie was born in Angus in 1891 and grew up at West Balmirmer Farm near Arbroath. In 1910 she matriculated at University College, Dundee to study at the Conjoint Medical School, marking the start of an association that would last most of the rest of her life. After graduating in 1915, she held various posts in Dundee, Perth, Edinburgh and Manchester, before returning to Dundee in 1919 to run a consultant practice for gynaecology, and started teaching at the Medical School the following year. In the mid 1920s Fairlie joined the staff of Dundee Royal Infirmary becoming head of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in 1936. This appointment displeased at least one male colleague who felt he should have been appointed to the job. Famed for her hard work she was also honorary gynaecologist to Arbroath, Brechin, Montrose and Forfar infirmaries and attended cases throughout Angus and Perthshire

This promotion should have led to a speedy appointment as Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, but moves to appoint her to this position were blocked by the University of St Andrews Court – partly due to on-going conflict between elements at St Andrews and Dundee and partly because of opposition to appointing a female professor. With the Directors of Dundee Royal Infirmary standing behind Fairlie and opinion in Dundee largely supportive of her, four years of impasse followed until the University Court finally granted her a chair in 1940. A popular figure with staff and students, she was noted for her warm hospitality. She retired in 1956, but retained a close connection with both the University and DRI.

In addition to her academic work she was involved in practical medicine delivering many babies and she once suggested that if they were laid out in a line they would stretch from Dundee to beyond Perth. Her work as a doctor also helped reduce Dundee's notoriously high infant mortality rate, and she was involved in the establishment of Dundee’s first ante-natal clinic. Following a visit to the Marie Curie Foundation in Paris in 1926 Fairlie developed a keen interest in the clinical use of radium. Thereafter she became a pioneer in its use in Scotland, employing it in the treatment of malignant gynaecological diseases. She also organised a follow up clinic for the patients she treated with radium, seeing some of them over the twenty years at the clinic she held at Dundee Royal Infirmary. She was much mourned in Dundee on her death in 1963 and was the subject of a number of glowing tributes.

Details of Margaret Fairlie’s extraordinary life and work can be found in a number of our collections including the records of Dundee Royal Infirmary (THB 1) and the University Staff Biographical Collection (UR_SF 1). The old professorial board with Fairlie's name engraved on it (which once stood in the Medical School) is now on permanent display in the corridor beside the Archives.

Dr Kenneth Baxter