Jean Eileen Lawrie (née Grant)BMJ 2010; 340 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c1933 (Published 09 April 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c1933
- Janet Husband,
- Christina Williams
Dr Jean Lawrie CBE MBBS was a remarkable woman who, during a career which spanned over 50 years, championed change for medical women and helped to establish their place in a man’s world. Through her endeavours women doctors can now enjoy a successful and rewarding career as well as assuming the responsibilities of family life. Indeed there are a number of women still practising medicine today who owe Dr Lawrie an enormous debt of gratitude for her wise counsel, personal encouragement, and support in the early days of their careers when the struggle to maintain a professional working life was daunting and the path ahead was far from clear.
Jean Lawrie subsequently played a key role in influencing government policy to introduce flexible and part-time training and to develop the retainer scheme which enabled women doctors to keep their hand in over the years when family commitments were too demanding to pursue an active career. Her vision for women in medicine was realised though her characteristically indomitable spirit and resolute determination to overcome any obstacles that stood in her way, however overwhelming. These exceptional qualities, which made Jean Lawrie a superb leader in the world of medical politics, were also a key factor in overcoming the major difficulties which resulted from her attack of acute poliomyelitis in 1948. This left her with disabilities which she bore bravely and with great dignity for the rest of her life but which, importantly, changed the direction of her career from that of general practice to one of medical politics.
Jean Eileen Lawrie (née Grant) was born in Southern Rhodesia in 1914 and moved permanently to England four years later with her mother and sister. She attended Walthamstow Hall School, Sevenoaks, from where she entered the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine in 1932 and qualified in 1938. After completing house jobs in London and Oxford, she was made medical officer for those made homeless by the Blitz. She married in 1941 and then spent most of the war years in general practice in Woburn Sands, including responsibilities for Bletchley Park.
Meanwhile she was bringing up her eldest child singlehandedly while her husband, Rex, who later was appointed consultant surgeon at Guy’s Hospital, was operating with the 1st Army in North Africa and Italy. This early experience of singlehanded motherhood was the foundation for her determination to help other women in the struggle to carry on as practising doctors.
Jean served on the council of the British Medical Association for many years but it was in her senior roles in the Medical Women’s Federation (MWF) that she reached the zenith of her long and dedicated career. She served as honorary secretary for 14 years and was elected president in 1976-7. Among many achievements within the MWF, she was responsible for ensuring that part-time training was recognised within EEC Directives, and in 1967 she convened the Women’s Taxation Action Group (WOTAG), serving as its chair. The group played a central role in determining that the earned income of a wife would be taxed separately from that of her husband. Jean served on many interprofessional national and international committees, including co-chairing the National Women’s Committee, representing the views and interests of women. In 1977 she was appointed CBE in recognition of her huge contribution to medicine. She maintained her clinical interests through her work in gynaecology at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital, in the community as school doctor to Godolphin and Latymer School for 25 years, and with the University of London teaching school in Chelsea for 10 years. She continued to take an active interest in medical issues and tirelessly followed up issues dear to her heart, corresponding at length to express her views on many aspects of medical politics.
As a wife and mother she was busy enough, but she made sure that there was always a welcoming atmosphere and generous hospitality at the family home in Kent for many generations of Guy’s students and graduates, her own contemporaries, local friends, and numerous overseas visitors. She was a brilliant conversationalist, always interested in other people, but also talented in handicrafts, including dressmaking and embroidery, and enthusiastic about gardening. After her retirement, she was appointed personal physician to the ladies and children of the Sultan’s palace in Brunei and spent four interesting years there from 1978 to 1982 together with Rex, who following his retirement became physician to the Sultan and project managed the new hospital in Bandar Seri Begawan. They treasured the close relationships that also developed during this period with medical and aristocratic contacts in Thailand, and Jean continued to maintain her links with her medical contacts back in the UK.
Returning to true retirement in Kent, Jean and Rex remained in close touch with their many admirers in the medical profession, as well as being indomitably hospitable to family and friends from around the globe. Locally Jean became a strong supporter of Age Concern, serving as the chair of the local group for several years. She also took a keen interest in other local activities, including being instrumental in the installation of dropped kerbs around the village for disabled access and for mothers with prams.
Jean’s life work has paved the way for women doctors to reach the top of their profession and, although major challenges still remain, attitudes have changed markedly and new opportunities have been created. Today over half the medical students qualifying in the UK each year are women, so Jean’s outstanding and influential work will continue to have a major impact on the delivery of health care for many decades to come.
Jean died peacefully at home on 14 May 2009 aged 94 years. She is survived by her devoted husband, Rex; their two daughters, Christina and Katie, and two sons, Alex and Jamie; 11 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c1933
Former honorary secretary and president Medical Women’s Federation (b 7 June 1914; q Royal Free Hospital, London, 1938; CBE), d 14 May 2009.