Born: 14 March, 1923 in Perth. Died: 12 March, 2014 in Edinburgh, aged 90
Had the job prospects been brighter in the stargazing sphere, Mary Macdonald may well have gone on to make her mark in the world of astronomy.
It was her first career choice and an enduring passion but, having discovered that there were few jobs for men in that discipline and none for women, she opted to pursue a professional life in medicine. That pragmatic decision kept her in the field of science, led to her specialising in pathology and saw her become a world authority in renal pathology, setting up Edinburgh’s renal biopsy service with her husband, the late James Robson, professor of medicine.
Highly respected in her clinical and teaching career, she was a mentor to thousands of undergraduates, lectured internationally and made a huge contribution to the editing of Stanley Davidson’s textbook Principles and Practice of Medicine – achievements gathered in tandem with motherhood, a role that took her from the football terraces to pop concerts with her two boys.
The middle child of Perth draper Alexander Macdonald and his wife Mary, a linen mill worker and professional singer, she and her two brothers all went into medicine but it was acknowledged that young Mary was the smartest of the three.
At school at Perth Academy she wrote Latin poetry for fun and was not only academically gifted but excelled on the sports field as a sprinter, despite the fact it was an activity in which she had no particular interest.
She was, however, fascinated by astronomy, a subject in which she was encouraged by a local amateur enthusiast and, though her youthful ambition to make a career out of it didn’t come to fruition, she maintained an interest in the heavens throughout her life, becoming widely read in astronomy and cosmology and latterly enjoying the BBC’s Stargazing Live programmes.
Having decided to concentrate on medicine, she went up to Edinburgh University in 1940, graduating with an MBChB in 1945 and spending the following year as a resident house doctor at the Eastern General Hospital and Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh.
By 1946 she was already an assistant lecturer in Edinburgh University’s pathology department, where she would spend the majority of her working life. She became a member of the Royal College of Physicians in 1948, the same year she married Dr James Robson – though she retained her maiden name, a practice she also encouraged amongst her female students.
The following year the couple were each awarded a fellowship at Harvard University, she in pathology, he in nutrition and biochemistry.
During the 1950s, after the introduction of needle biopsy to diagnose kidney disease, she and her husband worked together to establish Edinburgh’s renal biopsy service.
Using the newly available technique of electron microscopy to examine small samples of tissue, they increased the accuracy of diagnosis and discovered previously unrecognised types of kidney disease which responded to different forms of treatment.
Along with her husband she played an important role in early Medical Research Council trials of treatment for the range of kidney conditions known as glomerulonephritis. Dr Robson was also key in establishing a treatment centre for acute reversible renal failure which, together with the work of the biopsy service, helped to lay the groundwork for the UK’s first successful kidney transplant, in Edinburgh in 1960.
Dr Macdonald also collaborated with her husband on the editing of early editions of Stanley Davidson’s medical textbook, putting in long hours, well beyond her full day’s work, to turn the contributed chapters into readable prose. Meticulous and a stickler for the correct use of grammar, she was the author of many papers in her own right, contributed to many important medical textbooks as both author and editor and could often be found reading or editing an academic paper on her lap whilst attending a Hibernian or Hearts football match with her sons. Family life in the 1960s also saw her accompany the boys to the Edinburgh performances of groups including The Rolling Stones and The Beatles.
Dr Macdonald, who became a fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists in 1975, was latterly a reader in Edinburgh University’s pathology department and an honorary consultant with Lothian Health Board.
Aside from her professional and family commitments, her other interests included music, politics – she was a member of the Labour Party until her death – and the church. A long-standing member of the Methodist church, she taught youngsters at Edinburgh’s Central Hall Sunday School, where she introduced a scientific dimension to the lessons. She also sang in church choirs for more than 70 years, until she reached her mid-80s, and was honoured with a piece written and dedicated to her in 2000 by one of her choirmasters.
Devoted to her husband, whom she looked after at home for a considerable period until his death in 2010, she is survived by her sons Michael and Christopher, her brother Sandy, grandchildren David and Nicola and great-granddaughter Lucie.