Elizabeth Macgregor

DR ELIZABETH MACGREGOR OBE, MD, FRCOG FRC (path) Pioneering cytologist

Born: 12 January, 1920, in Glasgow. Died: 8 October, 2005, in Oban, aged 85.

IT IS a sad irony that in the week of the announcement that a vaccine was available to combat cervical cancer, Elizabeth Macgregor died. As far back as 1960, she had been appointed to develop, monitor and research a programme of smear tests in Aberdeen. This Macgregor pursued with a committed intensity and instituted a programme for all women in the Aberdeenshire area who were at risk from cervical cancer. Without doubt, her programme of screening proved hugely successful and saved many lives. There was a dramatic fall in cervical cancer in the north-east and Macgregor's research benefited women throughout the UK. Indeed her programme was so admired within the medical fraternity that many countries abroad adopted it.

Janet Elizabeth Macgregor (nee McPherson) studied medicine at Glasgow University during the Second World War. There she met her future husband, Alastair Macgregor, and on graduation they went to work in Sheffield and then he was appointed Reader at Edinburgh University. He had a distinguished career also and became Regius Professor of Materia Medica at Aberdeen University. They moved to Aberdeen in the Fifties and became significant forces in increasing the university's research programme and international reputation.

It was in 1960 that it was decided to embark on a schedule of cervical testing for the entire area. The eminent physician at the university, Sir Dugald Baird, inspired Macgregor to research the origins of cervical cancer and to concentrate especially on all the women - and in particular disadvantaged women - of the north-east.

Macgregor brought to the project a dedication, determination and considerable medical skills that ensured her programme worked efficiently. Diplomacy was also required, as all the GPs had to be written to (often repeatedly) in Aberdeenshire to obtain their approval so that smear testing could commence. Macgregor created a comprehensive call-and-recall system that broke new ground with its findings.

"It was done so expertly under Betty's supervision," Dr Amanda Herbert of St Thomas's Hospital, London, told The Scotsman. "In fact, over the first five years there was such a decrease in the cervical cancer in the area and she had comprehensively proved her case. Betty was a superb cytologist and the most delightful person. Without a doubt, she saved many lives."

It was not a period when priority was given to such a lengthy and complex medical programme: politicians had other demands on public funds. It was the way Macgregor organised the tests that brought the programme so much renown. Everything was meticulously documented and recorded with great care and attention. After five years she had assembled such powerful scientific evidence that other health authorities throughout the UK immediately adopted her system.

Her work brought Macgregor much esteem within the medical profession. She was much honoured by several of the Royal Societies and was a most distinguished president of her own medical association from 1980-83. During that presidency of the British Society of Clinical Cytology (BSCC), she published a book about improving the smear-test programmes nationally. It became a medical best-seller and sold 15,000 copies in its first edition and 10,000 in its second.

A memorable evening was held in 1985 when Macgregor retired from Aberdeen University. A reception was held in the Elphinstone Hall and Professor Allan Templeton, the head of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, remembers it with much pleasure: "We gave Betty a grand send-off and, appropriately, Sir Dugald Baird and many former distinguished colleagues were present."

But this most active lady did not slip gently into retirement. She had bought a house on the Isle of Seil, off the coast at Oban, but Prof Templeton suggested she join a Birthright Programme he was initiating at the university. It was to research into pre-cervical care and patients who had slightly abnormal smear tests. "Betty accepted immediately and was as focused and enthusiastic as ever," he said. "She bought a house back in Aberdeen and did three days a week here and then travelled back to the west coast.

"Everyone respected her enormously and she was one of the mainstays of the programme. Betty was demanding and could be feisty. She preferred working with like-minded colleagues who shared her vision and commitment. She had a pawky sense of humour but never tolerated fools gladly."

Macgregor wrote several medical books and was a regular contributor to the British Medical Journal. She was awarded the OBE in 1984 but many friends wondered why a more substantial honour did not come her way. "She was not, I suppose, a very political animal," one friend commented.

Macgregor was devoted to her family and enjoyed taking her grandchildren sailing around Seil. She had her own yacht and loved the spectacular scenery of the west coast. One of her oldest friends, Dr Catherine Pike, was at Glasgow University with Macgregor and she too became a cytologist. "Even as a student, Betty was not afraid of anyone or anything. When she had got her teeth into something she would not let go. She was dedicated to her work. We had annual trips abroad with the BSCC and she delivered some excellent papers: she was very much a power in the profession. My abiding personal memory is of a most agreeable and fun person."

Her cremation takes place at Clydebank Crematorium today at 11am for family and close friends. There will be a Service of Thanksgiving in New Kilpatrick Parish Church in Bearsden at noon.

Dr Macgregor is survived by her daughter, two sons and twelve grandchildren. Her husband and a son predeceased her.