Dr Alison E Mack, authority in women’s health and family planning: an appreciation

DR Alison Mack, who has died at the age of 83,was a determined and enthusiastic innovator in improving the health care of women.

She learned many valuable lessons from a year in which she, her husband Alistair and their three young children spent in Kenya in 1965. Her experience showed her how a male-dominated society was indifferent to the health and well-being of women. Her mission was to change this.

Alison [née Mitchell] was born on March 3, 1937, the only child of William Neil Mitchell, a prominent Glasgow businessman and his wife, Cauley. She shone academically at Hutcheson’s Grammar School, where she enjoyed an excellent education.

Medicine was her chosen career and she entered Glasgow University in October 1954. She found herself academically linked to Alistair J Mack, who would later become a distinguished surgeon. From then on they were inseparable, and they married in 1961.

Alison graduated MBchB in 1960, achieving a distinction in surgery in her finals examination.

Her house-officer posts were with Professor L.J. Davis in Glasgow Royal Infirmary and with Sir Robert Wright in the Southern General Hospital. She gained experience in school health and in general practice before she and the young family accompanied Alistair to Kenya, where he had been seconded to help establish a new medical school in Nairobi.

In a podcast interview recorded for Glasgow University, she recalled: “When I graduated, we had three children quite quickly under three. So I did school health and GP locums. And then we went to Kenya for a year”.

In his interview, Alistair recalled: “The work was very interesting, and very exciting, very varied – lots of trauma, lots of unusual things that one didn’t see in this country”.

Alison spent the first three months working in casualty, then worked with staff, African wives and children, when she witnessed much “kwashiorkor”, as it was called – malnutrition suffered by children. In addition, many of the native women seemed to have pelvic inflammatory disease.

For the last six months she and another Glasgow graduate served as GPs to the white community. “And then”, she added, “when I came home, because of the large families and things I’d seen in Kenya, I did family planning training”.

Back in Glasgow, she trained in family planning in the Lansdowne Crescent Centre, in the city’s west end. Working with her colleagues, she established outreach clinics in deprived areas so that the rapidly advancing science of contraception could be available to those in most need.

In 1972 Alison was invited by Professor Sir Callum Macnaughton to be an associate specialist in gynaecology at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, with the remit of developing a family planning service.

Later, she and Dr James Kennedy developed a clinical colposcopy service. She was also a founder member of the board of the faculty of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care.

She spent some 16 years working in a big medical practice in the Gorbals, where she launched an innovative family planning service, including Well Men, Well Women, baby immunisation and Well Baby clinics.

“At one point”, she related in the podcast interview, “one of the health visitors and I hired a van from the health board [and] went out to Pollok to try catch the women and the babies who never turned up at the clinic. So we could certainly immunise the babies. and they were still sleeping.

“Although they knew we were coming we had to dig them out but we got them. But that obviously wasn’t financially viable. So we did it, you know, one or two times, just to show it could be done”.

For her contribution to family planning Alison was awarded an MBE for her services to Glasgow medicine, in the 1995 honours list when she retired. The accolade, she said, “was really very nice. I think it reflected all the changes that we [all] had made”.

Alison had the great gift of making and keeping friends, lunching regularly with people she had known from school or university. A highlight of her social calendar was her weekly evening bridge sessions with her friends. The Macks, Boyles, Connors, Glens and Lorimers met monthly for more than 50 years.

Alistair and Alison also loved sailing. Their summer holidays were spent exploring the islands and coast lines of the West of Scotland. Their craft always bore the name “Eccles”, in honour of their daughter Jennifer.

Their holiday house at Colintraive was a treasure house of memories for them, their children and their friends. Alison was always happy in Colintraive, even when, as happened on one occasion, she broke her leg on the hill.

Alison and Alistair were enthusiastic hillwalkers and with the Lorimers tramped through much of the north-west coast of Scotland in their annual June walking week.

Alison, a lifelong non-smoker, succumbed to lung cancer; in her final illness she was well cared for in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and the Prince and Princess of Wales Hospice. She died on International Women’s Day.

She is survived by her husband Alistair and their children David, Ian and Jennifer, and by her grandchildren Cameron, Jamie, Lauren, Callum and Garie.

Ross Lorimer