Kay Carmichael, lecturer, writer and government adviser

Born: 22 November, 1925, in Glasgow. Died: 26 December, 2009, in Glasgow, aged 84.

KAY Carmichael, a Glaswegian who did her first social studies at Edinburgh University, was a highly respected social scientist, criminologist, lecturer, writer and fiery activist on behalf of multiple causes ranging from gay rights – when that was not just unfashionable but downright dangerous in Glasgow – to getting American nuclear missiles out of her homeland. Having overcome childhood polio, a broken home and little formal schooling, she spent her life as a psychiatric social worker, studying the lives and problems of her fellow Scots, mostly the poor, the jobless, the homeless, the single mums and others without a voice, then suggesting ways of improving those lives. She did so not from any academic ivory tower but from knowledge gained first-hand from the streets, including the east end of Glasgow, where she was born.

Carmichael was an unabashed daughter of Red Clydeside. She was a staunch socialist, a member of the Independent Labour Party from the age of 20, and served for a time as an adviser to Harold Wilson's Labour government on social policy and Scottish affairs. In her later years, however, she become disillusioned with Labour's direction, quitting the party after Tony Blair was elected leader in 1994, saying he was an "insult" to the Labour movement and that she could not remain a member of a party led by such a man. Until her death, she became a passionate member of the SNP and an outspoken critic of British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

She was once jailed for 14 days after breaking through the perimeter fence of the Polaris nuclear missile base at Faslane, on the Gareloch, and planting flowers as a symbol of peace. She did her "time" in Cornton Vale women's prison in Stirling, where she confounded the wardens with her wit and erudition. She was a proud founding member of the self-styled Gareloch Horticulturists, or "Horts" for short, women who would stage "guerrilla" raids into the Faslane base, armed only with vegetable or flower bulbs. Throughout her life she was a regular visitor to the "peace camp" among the trees across the A814 from the Faslane base.

For much of her life Carmichael was perhaps best-known as the wife and stalwart of Neil Carmichael, Labour MP for Glasgow's Woodside and, later, Kelvingrove, who would eventually become Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove. She would have become Lady Carmichael but by the time he was given the title the couple had drifted apart after more than 30 years of marriage. They eventually divorced in the 1980s.

She was said to have been offered a peerage during Wilson's term but felt uncomfortable with the idea of a title and turned it down. She would go on to marry David Donnison, now professor emeritus and an honorary senior research fellow at Glasgow University's department of urban studies.

If the term "psychiatric social worker" sounds a bit abstract to most of us, Carmichael visited prisons, including Glasgow's Barlinnie, to study the psychology of inmates and, indeed, wardens, in the hope of bridging the gap between them and of giving prisoners a better chance of returning to society without rejection. More famously, although by then she was an academic in her 50s, she spent three months incognito in the 1970s in the Glasgow East End community of Lilybank, not far from where she was born.

She was deputy chair of the British government's Supplementary Benefits Commission at the time – assigned to study and assess what benefits should be paid to which people – and she decided that could not be done from behind a desk. She rented a flat in Lilybank and told her neighbours she was, like them, living on benefits – in her case around 10.50 a week at the time. She believed that little white lie was in a good cause. And the fact is she did live on that amount for three months, suffering the same hardships as her fellow residents.

After BBC TV based a series around Carmichael's time in Lilybank – something she had not intended – she sprung to prominence in Scotland and to this day people who watched the series say they remember her voice as she related her experiences. The series was also widely believed to have led to an increase in benefits for struggling families throughout the UK. She went on to write two highly thought-of books, Ceremony of Innocence (1991) and Sin and Forgiveness (2003).

Catherine "Kay" MacIntosh Rankin was born in the Glasgow district of Shettleston in 1925. Her father was a Protestant, her mother a Catholic, a mixed marriage which was a potentially lethal cocktail given the religious and social mores of the time. The on-off marriage, during which her soldier father disappeared for much of the time and her mother was an alcoholic midwife, did, however, give young Kay an insight into social relations in her home city that would guide her for the rest of her life.

As an infant, she suffered from polio, still highly misunderstood at the time, lost the use of all her limbs and spent a long time in Glasgow's Royal Infirmary. She would later recover all but the full use of her left arm, a fact she disguised well. Many of her friends remained unaware of her disability, although it caused her increasing ill-effects in later life.

As a result of her parents' problems, she was sent to a convent school in Girvan, Ayrshire, aged four. She later recalled that it was mostly a nightmare experience under a "brutal" mother superior who humiliated her in front of the entire school for bedwetting. One nun, however, taught and encouraged her to read, which she did avidly for the rest of her life.

During the Second World War she was only too happy to be evacuated to Dumfries, where she found herself in the care of a wealthy lady in a mansion called Trigony House, now a luxury hotel. She recalled dining with the lady, each at opposite ends of a long table, served by a butler, an experience which gave the working-class lass from Glasgow a new perspective and confidence.

Back in Glasgow, never regularly in school, she took to visiting the Tollcross public library, often reading one book in the morning and another in the afternoon. She was a "speed reader" for the rest of her life, though her lack of education in mathematics left her somewhat "numerically dyslexic", according to friends.

She married Neil Carmichael in 1948 and, after his stunning defeat of the Conservative candidate in Woodside in 1962, their three-room-and-kitchen home at 53 Partick Hill Road, in Glasgow's Hyndland district, became an "open house" and a hotbed of socialist idealism visited by politicians, students and others from far afield.

Carmichael gained her first diploma in psychiatric social work at Edinburgh University. In later years, she became a senior lecturer in social administration at Glasgow University, where she set up the UK's first course for training probation officers. She was also a member of the Kilbrandon Committee, which led to the 1968 Social Work Scotland Act and the establishment of "children's panels" to help rather than punish children experiencing difficulties. She was 76 when she gained a PhD from Glasgow in theology and English, not an honorary degree but one won after the usual years of study.

Carmichael and her second husband spent their later years between Hillhead in Glasgow and a home on Easdale Island, Argyll. Friends described her as "an anarchist at heart". With her usual wit, she preferred to describe herself as "a delinquent".

She died of a heart attack possibly related to "post-polio syndrome", according to her daughter, Sheena, who said she had asked to be "played out" at Maryhill crematorium to Liza Minelli's song Come to the Cabaret, followed by her beloved Red Flag. At her request, mourners will thereafter adjourn to a popular restaurant in Glasgow's West End for "champagne and sausage rolls".

Kay Carmichael is survived by her husband, her daughter and two grandchildren.