Intended for healthcare professionals

Career Focus

Time to stand and stare

BMJ 2004; 329 doi: (Published 03 July 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;329:s8
  1. Margaret Cook, retired haematologist
  1. Edinburgh


Margaret Cook was married to a politician while building her own career as a consultant haematologist and bringing up two children. Her marriage fell apart in the glare of the public eye, and she now writes for newspapers and magazines and has published two books. She tells Career Focus about her busy life

Ibecame a doctor by accident. I had a romantic notion of myself in medical research, complete with daydreams of Nobel prizes, reincarnating Marie Curie, winning an immortal reputation. But luckily, once at medical school I liked the subjects and the feeling of vocational altruism that cloaked us. Medical students fancied themselves as an elite and in my day were noted for black humour, fast living, and monumentally risky lifestyles. It was good to be a part of all that. The dissecting room was a centre of social chitchat, gossip, and the beginnings of romantic liaisons. My mother recently voiced an interest in donating her body to an anatomy department. When I protested saying, “Imagine yourself the object of detached study of two students, leaning their elbows on your chest as they make eyes at each other across your bosom,” she replied, “I can't think of anything I'd like better.”

At the age of 14, I saw an American film at school which beautifully described the circulation of the blood. Unfortunately, the wonders were not allowed to speak for themselves but were linked with superlative evangelical speak. All the same, it did the trick, and I determined on a medical career.

A steep learning curve

I dived into haematology immediately after my house jobs, still a senior house officer. It was a growing, cerebral subject, a conglomerate of a clinical specialty and a laboratory science. I liked the idea of looking at the whole patient, then analysing his or her tissue under the microscope. I loved the way you could detect pathological processes by such minute observation and by eyeballing some simple data.

About this time I married Robin Cook (later foreign secretary in the Labour government 1997), a fellow Edinburgh graduate whom I had met on the debating circuit. I believed that with our widely divergent interests and careers, we would not compete against each other to the detriment of our relationship. I was right and our marriage broke down after 31 years.

Career structures and training programmes for middle grade staff were unheard of in those days, but if you aspired to be a consultant in haematology you were obliged to take the examinations for membership of the Royal College of Physicians (MRCP) and for membership of the Royal College of Pathologists (MRCPath). For me, never having done a general medical job, the MRCP was tricky. I had to make up the knowledge base by reading and by fitting in other clinics and specialties in my own time.

Juggling career and family life

I was in the habit of protesting to anyone who asked that I did not want children, and I believed it. But when, at the age of 28, I became pregnant I was overjoyed, and I determined to overcome any difficulty about having both family and career. Nevertheless, at the time it nearly ruined my career. I held a post as locum senior registrar (equivalent to senior specialist registrar), the locum status being simply that I had not been qualified long enough (four years) to be allowed a substantive senior registrar job.

When my pregnancy could no longer be concealed, the job came up for reappointment; and I lost it. Why? Probably because the other candidate was better than me. He was certainly not encumbered with personal responsibilities as I was seen to be. Unlike me, he could choose to accept or refuse whereas I was unemployed at a stroke.

It is ideal to be enjoyably busy

But my good luck held, and almost immediately I got a lecturer post. I worked up to my expected date of delivery, and then, after my son was born, had two months' leave.

When Chris was one year old to the day, his father was elected member of parliament for Edinburgh central. Peter was born about three months later. If I had thought life was hectic before, it then moved up a gear, with two babies and an absentee husband. The year 1974 will always stick in my mind as one of enormous challenges. There were actually two general elections that year, and we heaved a sigh of relief when Robin kept his seat the second time around. One problem I faced was that I could not scour the country for a consultant job but was restricted to London or Edinburgh. London was a no-no because I had never worked there. In West Lothian, at Bangour General Hospital (later rebuilt as St John's Hospital), a haematology department was in the process of being established. This put some pressure on me to pass the MRCPath final (in those days a demanding, three day examination with clinical, laboratory, and oral components), which I achieved in 1975. Most of my studying was done late in the evenings, when the children were asleep.

Multitalented consultant

At home, things trundled along happily except for the inevitable crises of children's sickness and nanny sickness too.

Because of local boundary changes, Robin had to look for a new winnable seat, and he was adopted as the Labour candidate for Livingston. I have been told that my reputation locally stood him in good stead. It was good that our working lives had some link, enhanced when he became shadow health secretary under Neil Kinnock's leadership. We had many stimulating exchanges, and at a time when laboratory medicine was under attack over questions of leadership and centralisation, I was able to give him insights on issues most politicians never reach intellectually. I also gave him medical perspectives on the various patient complaints that came his way. In 1997, at last in office as foreign secretary under Tony Blair's administration, he left me and married his secretary. This has been covered extensively in the press, so I do not need to go into it here.

Life outside medicine

I was fortunate in having my own career, identity, interests, income, and networks. At that difficult time, I received countless letters from women both commiserating and telling me their own stories. I wrote back, answering every one individually, and realised I loved writing.

Since then I have published two books: one a memoir (A Slight and Delicate Creature), which was greeted by much controversy, and the second about the psychology of power (Lords of Creation). I have written agony columns (or equivalent) for Woman's Journal, Observer Review, and now Marie Claire, as well as political, social, and medical journalistic comment in many newspapers. I still live in Edinburgh, recently retired from haematology (a little early), and now do two days a week of disability assessment. I have a new partner (also called Robin). I continue to write, including weekly columns in the Scotsman, swim, walk, cycle, enjoy the theatre and cinema, travel, read extensively, take up new interests, demonstrate against war with Iraq, and agitate on the political and medical front.

It is ideal to be enjoyably busy, but also to have time—time to stand and stare.

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