Obituary: Dr Elizabeth (Libby) Wilson, right-to-die campaigner

Right-to-die campaigner and a pioneer in tackling womens sexual health issues. Picture: Robert Perry
Right-to-die campaigner and a pioneer in tackling womens sexual health issues. Picture: Robert Perry
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Born: 3 June 1926 in Surrey. Died 29 March in Glasgow, aged 89

Doctor Libby Wilson who has died aged 89 was a prominent campaigner for assisted suicide and a leading pioneer in tackling women’s sexual health issues.

In 2009 she was arrested by Surrey police on suspicion of having helped multiple sclerosis sufferer Cari Loder commit suicide, an offence attracting a maximum sentence of fourteen years imprisonment. Detained in a cell at Woking police station, when subsequently interviewed she asked the officers if they knew of the DPP’s recent guidelines –to the effect that prosecution was unlikely if the person assisting did not gain financially-but received a negative response.

Dr Wilson found the whole episode somewhat farcical. She had to hand over her laces in case of self harm and had to use a police pen for her crosswords. She later remarked that was about the only thing that worked as the recording machine used for her interview kept breaking down. No proceedings ensued.

As a GP in Sheffield in the 1950’s she began her involvement in family planning and set up her own clinic in the city’s east end. She became very committed to this work.

Once contraception for unmarried women became available at the clinic, it was very controversial, with mail being received addressed to The Den of Iniquity’ When her husband Graham was appointed Regius Professor of Medicine at Glasgow University in 1967, she began working full time in women’s sexual health in Glasgow for the Family Planning Association, educating and advising women, particularly in deprived areas, on contraception and abortion.

She was appalled sometimes at what she saw, describing mothers of ten as “broken individuals, like paper boats, just staying afloat”. Her work occasionally brought her into conflict with the largely Catholic Council and the Church but from her Claremont Terrace clinic she resolutely stood her ground. By her retiral in 1990 she was clinical co-ordinator of family planning and women’s health for Glasgow Family Planning Service.

She then spent a year in civil war torn Sierra Leone as medical officer with the Marie Stopes international family planning service, performing much valuable work on limited resources. She later recalled, “Women are the same all round the world. In Sierra Leone some women I met reminded me of many of the poor women in Glasgow, scared of their husbands, frightened to say ‘no’ to sex and reluctant to have yet more children.”

Those experiences in Glasgow and Sierra Leone led to her writing two books, Sex on the Rates and Unexpected Always Happen.

In retirement she joined the Voluntary Euthanasia of Scotland Society and campaigned for the legalisation of suicide, stating that “people should be allowed to make their own choice about how they end their life”. Then in 2000 she was one of the founders of Glasgow based group, FATE (Friends at the End), later convener and medical adviser . She promoted their belief that people should be allowed to die at a time of their own choosing and with appropriate assistance. Both before and after her arrest in 2009 she advised many on making that choice and assisted them fulfil it in helping with arrangements in clinics in Switzerland. She also helped the late Margo MacDonald in the introduction of her bills on assisted suicide to the Scottish Parliament in 2010 and 2013.Sheila Duffy, current FATE convener commented: “Dr Libby Wilson was a doughty fighter for the rights of the individual, a warm woman who loved people and cared what happened to them at the beginning and end of their life.”

One of a family of three, her father was a doctor and after initial years in London, he secured an appointment in Aviemore in 1936 where the family spent two years before returning south to Wonersh, near Guildford for two years. By the early ‘40s they were in London and because of the Blitz, Libby, her mother and siblings were evacuated to Dumfriesshire where they lived for a while in the village of Penpont. Most of her secondary education took place at St Catherine’s School near Guildford, after which she studied medicine at King’s College, London.

In November 1949 in Wonersh Church, Libby, nee Bell Nicol, married Dr Graham Wilson, who had served in the RAF during the war and had graduated in medicine from Edinburgh University as his year’s gold medallist. They had been introduced by Libby’s aunt as her daughter was going out with Graham’s brother John. Initially they lived in London before moving to Sheffield and then Glasgow where Graham died in 1977, a day before his 60th birthday. While a patient in the Western Infirmary, Libby visited him four times a day to assist with his care. Their marriage was happy and fulfilled and Graham’s death was devastating. Their seven children, one of whom, Ann, died in infancy, were all born in Sheffield.

In 2007 Libby was pleasantly surprised to be honoured by the Scottish Academy of Merit with the George Bell Award for Services to Medicine, for her contribution to family planning and the assisted dying movement. She remarked,”I’m really amazed by this, I’ve had no public recognition before and here I am at 80 receiving this delightful surprise.”

Her interests included travel, particularly to Australia where she went often to visit her siblings, John and Alison. She also travelled widely throughout the UK visiting friends and family. A keen reader with a house full of books she also enjoyed crosswords at which she excelled. Granddaughter Rebecca commented: “She was direct but a warm and loving woman,the matriarch of our family,an inspiration to all.”

Her guiding tenet in life was the right to personal choice,which was reflected in her work in family planning and her part in the assisted dying campaigns. She is survived by sons,John and Richard,daughters Margaret,Penny,Rosemary and Diane and 18 grandchildren.