Obituaries

Margaret Anne Haigh (née Mitchell)

BMJ 2007; 334 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39155.700683.BE (Published 29 March 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;334:701
  1. Fiona Haigh

    Margaret Haigh had an unconventional yet distinguished medical career.

    While at work at the London Ambulance Service on the 28 February 1975, news came of an underground train crash at Moorgate station. The train had passed the platform at speed and crashed into a short blind ending tunnel. Margaret joined her ambulance crews to assist the rescue of the trapped and injured in horrific, claustrophobic conditions: temperatures were over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and the air was poor. Passengers alive and dead were trapped in the crushed front carriages. In spite of the dreadful conditions, Margaret then spent a further four days helping to coordinate the recovery of the dead, 43 in total. There was never any explanation why the driver did not stop, but the crash did bring about new rules and technology to prevent a repeat crash.

    Margaret was awarded an MBE in the Queen's birthday honours that year, the citation being “for gallantry”. She was justly proud, but felt the award was for all ambulance personnel who were at Moorgate. On the day of her autumn investiture she and other Moorgate heroes had a private audience with the Queen, before receiving their honours. Margaret undoubtedly suffered post-traumatic stress disorder with recurring nightmares but with the support of her family and colleagues was able to cope at work and at home.

    Margaret was born in Paddington, London, on 27 July 1931. Her father, Hedley Mitchell, was a pioneering department store owner in Kent; her mother was, unusually for a lady of that time, a science graduate and deputy head teacher from South Africa. Margaret was educated at Herschel School, Cape Town, and Ashford School for Girls, Kent, and was not only an outstanding scientist but also an outstanding linguist and artist. She was a sparkling undergraduate at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, but much to Oxford's disappointment won an exhibition to St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, for her clinical years.

    A glittering career beckoned, but marriage in 1955 and the birth of her first child in 1956 meant she never completed her pre-registration year.

    She followed her husband to Johannesburg and found work in a township clinic on the High Veld. Margaret saw the consequences of government racial policy in her clinic. Her husband, Alan, a journalist, wrote against President Verwoerd's government and was questioned by the secret police, so early in 1961 Margaret had to leave Johannesburg precipitously, with her two children, on board a Comet freight airplane, landing at Addis, Cairo, and Rome, taking three days.

    A return to Alan's home county of Yorkshire saw Alan as deputy editor of the Yorkshire Post and Margaret researching in Leeds into the causes of vascular atheroma.

    Following a move to Dulwich, London, Margaret found work at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and then in 1969 she joined the British Heart Foundation, then a fledgling charity. Margaret's role as administrative medical director involved helping allocate funds to several important research projects just as diet and smoking were being recognised as factors in coronary heart disease.

    In 1973 she was especially delighted to be asked to operate the ECG machine at Pinewood studios so that actor Harry Andrews could be seen to “die” in the film the Mackintosh Man!

    In 1973 she left the rapidly growing British Heart Foundation to become the medical officer to the London Ambulance Service. She had already worked with the LAS in 1969 when coordinating with the GLC (Greater London Council) the first survey of coronary care provision in London.

    As the only doctor at the LAS she was to coordinate a new team to change ambulance staff from “people carriers” to paramedics. Margaret was responsible, with participating hospitals, for “extended training” of ambulance men and women in resuscitation, defibrillation, intubation, and intravenous infusion. There was vocal opposition from doctors and some ambulance personnel but the course proved a success, with many keen, young staff taking on new skills--the first groundbreaking steps to the modern paramedic service in London.

    By 1978 the extended training of ambulance personnel was established and Margaret sought new challenges as a medical officer and then director of the medical department of the British Council. Though her role was to liaise with eminent doctors throughout the United Kingdom to arrange lecture tours abroad and training placements for deserving foreign doctors, she also had to deal with the day to day problems of young doctors on British Council placements in the UK--from homesickness to asylum seeking, from severe mental illness to family bereavement, from criminality to pregnancy.

    Throughout this time her greatest joy was her chance to travel: Lesotho, India, Nepal, Brazil, Oman, Zambia, and Iraq all had their medical education needs scrutinised and reported on.

    It was not all hard work; she was treated as a diplomat, the pink and blue striped British Council labels easing her through border formalities. She was entranced by the Himalayas, marvelled at the arch at Ctesiphon, and stood atop the Sugarloaf in Rio.

    Margaret continued to use her journalistic skills, now on the editorial board of the British Medical Bulletin. The last bulletin Margaret commissioned in 1988 was on the then “likely” AIDS pandemic.

    At the end of a trip to southern Africa she sustained severe left sided injuries in a car accident. A painful crushed foot limited her mobility, and in 1988 she took early retirement from the British Council.

    Throughout her career Margaret's greatest loves were her husband, her family, and home. She tirelessly encouraged her children and grandchildren, tended her gardens, and adored her dogs. She was cultured and stylish, with a great thirst for knowledge: her passion for science, astronomy, geography, and vulcanology never dimmed. Margaret read fast and widely and enjoyed discovering new literature and poetry. She was a very effective campaigner for local causes in Kent, fighting off a proposed new landfill site and, against all odds, defeating Orange Telecom--one of the first successful local actions against mobile phone masts.

    In 2003, two years after her beloved husband's death, Margaret fulfilled a promise to herself to return to South Africa, taking her Springer spaniel with her.

    She set up a wonderful new home in Johannesburg next door to her eldest son. Her new garden grew tremendously quickly, much to her satisfaction.

    In South Africa she was diagnosed with idiopathic lung fibrosis, and following a minor foot operation in October 2006, she collapsed and was admitted to intensive care with respiratory failure.

    She leaves three children (one a consultant radiologist) and four grandchildren.

    Footnotes

    • Director and officer Medical Department, British Council (1978-88); medical officer London Ambulance Service (1974-8), heroine of the Moorgate train crash 1975; medical director British Heart Foundation (1969-73) (b London 27 July 1931; q Oxford/St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, 1955; MBE, MA (Oxon)), died from respiratory failure in Johannesburg, South Africa, on 11 November 2006.

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