Her life was described by friends as extraordinarily active, which made terminal illness all the more difficult to accept. For a woman who swam every day, even as a pensioner, death on her own terms was the better option for Elisabeth Rivers-Bulkeley.

At 82, she had packed in more than most manage. Born Elisabeth-Liesl-Charlotte Marie Neustadtl in Vienna in April 1924, she was educated in Clarens, Switzerland, and won the women's Austrian ice-skating championships three times.

Her father was a car manufacturer with anti-Nazi views. He went missing in 1942 and could not be located after the end of the Second World War. Her mother survived the occupation of Austria by Germany.

Elisabeth visited England in 1938 with the intention of returning to school in Switzerland but remained in England after Germany invaded. She was classed as an enemy alien in 1940 and had to report to her local police station whenever she wanted to ride her bicycle. She became a driver in the ATS after leaving school in 1942.

A year later, she married Lieutenant Commander John Langford-Holt and helped get him elected as Conservative MP for Shrewsbury in 1945.

Described as a pretty and stylish party girl renowned for her taste in Chanel, she was presented at court in 1947.

The couple divorced in 1951 and she remarried, to Major Robert Rivers-Bulkeley, shortly after he retired from the Scots Guards. They farmed rare pigs in the Borders for five years but, despite her best efforts - she shampooed the pigs before big agricultural shows - the business was not profitable.

The couple moved to London, where her husband became an underwriter at Lloyd's of London. Mrs Rivers-Bulkeley joined the Stock Exchange firm of Hedderwick, Borthwick & Co in 1957.

She became a successful broker and also wrote columns of investment and financial management advice for women for the Daily Telegraph, undertook lecture tours and was a guest on Woman's Hour on BBC Radio 4 and The Money Programme on BBC TV. She got scores of letters from women claiming she had changed their lives.

The couple kept a house on the French Riviera, and she was a founder member of Annabel's nightclub in London in 1962. She had a talent for making friends - among them Noel Coward, Gianni Agnelli, head of Fiat, and publisher George Weidenfeld.

Mrs Rivers-Bulkeley was both part of the establishment, and a renegade, as best demonstrated by her tenacious fight to get women a place in the London Stock Exchange.

In the 1950s, the Financial Times noted her name "struck fear into the hearts of every London broker determined to keep Throgmorton Street an all-male province".

The exchange had always turned down applications by women, blaming its lack of "facilities" for women members. Officials also objected to Mrs Rivers-Bulkeley's foreign roots and the risky nature of her husband's occupation.

But by 1973, the dam was breached and, now a partner with brokers Capel-Cure, Garden & Co, she became one of the first 10 women elected as members.

In retirement, the couple moved back to Scotland. She and her husband, now 92, had lived for eight years in a secluded home near Aberlady in East Lothian, within the grounds of the famous Gosford House, the ancestral home of the Earls of Wemyss and March which was designed by Scottish architect Robert Adam.

The exact nature of Mrs Rivers-Bulkeley's final illness is not known but friends said she had been given less than six months to live.

She was, one said, "determined to be in control". As a member and regular supporter of Friends-at-the-end (Fate), the Scottish-based charity which promotes assisted suicide, Mrs Rivers-Bulkeley was given advice and support in her arrangements to visit the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, founded by Ludwig Minelli.

She had spent months collating the appropriate documents required by the clinic, including an original birth certificate from Vienna and two independent medical reports on her terminal condition. Before flying to Zurich, her husband moved into a nursing home and she shut up their house.

She wanted to go to the clinic alone but was persuaded to take a close family friend. The two flew to Zurich, where a doctor checked the validity of her medical records.

Like the estimated 60 other people from the UK who have chosen to die at Dignitas, Mrs Rivers-Bulkeley went to the spartan flat in Zurich to be greeted by a member of staff. The flat has one room and a kitchen, with a bed, some pictures, and a coffee table.

Staff then checked if she was certain she wanted to go ahead. Some 30 minutes before taking the lethal substance, she was given a solution to settle her stomach.

Patients feel drowsy within two minutes of swallowing a dose of barbiturates. Within five minutes, people usually fall unconscious and, within 15 minutes, they are dead, according to those who have been with them at the end.

Mrs Rivers-Bulkeley may be in a small minority of Britons to opt for assisted suicide but the latest British Social Attitudes Survey released last month found 80% supported voluntary euthanasia for "a person with an incurable and painful illness, from which they will die, for example someone dying of cancer".

However, Dr Andrew Fergusson, head of communications at the Christian Medical Fellowship, believes legalising euthanasia would wrongly pressure people into ending their own lives.

"The whole compassion argument of people suffering from and wanting to end painful illness is undermined by major improvements in palliative care and the hospice movement," he said.

"The views in the social attitudes survey have not changed in the past 30 years. A survey by Care Not Killing asked whether elderly and sick people would feel vulnerable to pressure to request euthanasia and between 60% and 70% said they would."

Forms of assisted dying have been made legal in the Netherlands, Belgium and in Oregon in the US, but all attempts at both Westminster and Holyrood to change the law have failed.

A number of high-profile cases in recent years have reignited the public debate on euthanasia, including that of Diane Pretty, a motor neurone disease sufferer who took her case to the European Court of Human Rights and lost.

Elisabeth Rivers-Bulkeley directed her death as single-mindedly as she lived her life. The question remains what impact her decision will have on other people's lives - and deaths.

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