Obituary: Dr Joyce Baird Senior. Senior lecturer and consultant physician

Dr Joyce Baird: World-renowned expert on diabetes whose socialist principles drove her love of the NHS
Dr Joyce Baird: World-renowned expert on diabetes whose socialist principles drove her love of the NHS
Share this article
Have your say

Born: 24 June, 1929 in Glasgow. Died: 5 August, 2014, in Newcastle upon Tyne, aged 85

Joyce Baird was an internationally acclaimed and pioneering expert on diabetes whose socialist instincts drove her desire to ensure that all should have equal access to excellent healthcare.

A rigorous scientist and sensitive physician who always put the needs of others first, she railed against any hint of privatisation in the NHS and believed that the key to success lay in empowering her patients and their families to manage their condition themselves – though it meant investing time in patient education, providing out-patient clinics outside normal working hours and round-the-clock access to specialist telephone advice

She was a perfectionist and throughout her distinguished career she resolutely stood up for what she believed to be right, never giving up without a fight, opting for a professional life in academic medicine in an era when the field was dominated by men and determinedly continuing to work full-time whilst juggling motherhood.

Her legacy is the Metabolic Unit at Edinburgh Western General Hospital, where she built a comprehensive service based on her concept of integrating patient care with research into the treatment and prevention of diabetes and other endocrine disorders.

Over the years, she established and expanded a clinical and laboratory service to encompass a staff of 40, including specialist nurses, dieticians and laboratory scientists, and introduced many doctors to her philosophy on how the care of diabetes “should be done”.

Once tipped by her university tutors for a career in philosophy, she could not see the point and instead followed the illustrious example of her parents, Sir Dugald and Lady May Baird, into medicine, inheriting their compassion for patients.

Born in Glasgow, she moved with her family to Aberdeen when her father was appointed to the chair of midwifery there in 1937.

He became a world authority on obstetrics and gynaecology and, as a young doctor, having witnessed the deprivation of families in Glasgow slums, had developed a strong social conscience. Together with this wife, also a doctor, councillor and chair of the local hospital board, he transformed the lives of mothers and babies in Aberdeen and advocated family planning services for all, not just the middle classes who could afford contraceptive advice.

Young Baird, educated at St Margaret’s School in Aberdeen and St Leonard’s in St Andrews, left school at 16 and studied for an MA at Aberdeen University, graduating in 1949 with prizes in English, moral philosophy, psychology and economic history.

Eschewing the university’s idea that she should become a philosopher, she subsequently graduated MB ChB in 1954. Her first post after qualifying was as house physician to Sir Derrick Dunlop at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary where she became involved in clinical trials of the new drugs being developed for non-insulin dependent diabetes.

In 1958, while working at Edinburgh Royal, she met and married Jack Splitt and gave birth to their daughter Miranda a couple of years later. She had had to save up her holidays to provide herself with some form of maternity leave but continued to work full-time. Having been inspired by Sir Derrick to embark on research into diabetes, she gained early recognition for the quality of her investigations when in 1961 she was invited to lecture in Geneva at the Fourth Congress of the International Diabetes Federation.

By 1968 she was a medical officer with the Scottish Home and Health Department with special responsibility for developments in drugs, food additives and contaminants, nutrition and radioisotopes. After two years there she was appointed lecturer in medicine in the department of medicine at Edinburgh’s Western General Hospital. She became a senior lecturer and honorary consultant physician in 1976 and was awarded a readership in 1988.

She spent her entire working life in Edinburgh where her strategy for managing diabetes proved highly successful in preventing patients being hospitalised. At the Metabolic Unit, she was in the vanguard of diabetic care, pioneering the use of glycosylated haemoglobin to monitor diabetic control in 1978 and introducing a computer system, to allow shared care with local GPs, in 1993.

She became internationally recognised as an authority on the role of diet and obesity in the development of diabetes, the metabolic response of the body to pregnancy and diabetic pregnancy. In 1982 she established a unique research resource, an Edinburgh colony of rats providing an animal model for insulin-dependent diabetes, which enabled ground-breaking studies into the pathogenesis and prevention of diabetes and its complications.

Her achievements were recognised in 1992 when the British Diabetic Association invited her to give the Banting Memorial Lecture: A Cure for Insulin Dependent Diabetes: Dream or Reality?

A clinical academic with legendary attention to detail, she fulfilled all her responsibilities to the highest standard, whether it was patient care, research or teaching, right down to the nitty gritty of the standard of cleanliness in patients’ waiting area – where she could often be seen wiping up with a damp cloth.

Dr Baird, who retired in 1994, also produced numerous publications over the years and, during the last decade of her working life, travelled widely as a guest lecturer at international conferences and as a member of the Juvenile Diabetes Federation International Medical Science Review Board. She was also chairman of the Nutrition Society and vice-president of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes.

A lifelong socialist, she passionately believed that everyone should have equal access to excellent healthcare regardless of their ability to pay and was totally committed to the NHS as a publicly funded, publicly provided and publicly accountable service. She was appalled by government Private Finance Initiatives of the 1990s to build new hospitals and joined the NHS Consultants Association to fight against what she saw as the creeping privatisation of the NHS.

Outwith her professional life, she had been a talented sportswoman who had captained the Scottish University women’s hockey team and who adored being surrounded by beauty, whether that was in the Oslo fjord where she enjoyed sailing and swimming, the hills of Scotland where she loved walking or in her Georgian home overlooking the Firth of Forth which she filled with contemporary Scottish artwork.

Widowed more than 40 years ago, she is survived by her daughter Miranda, granddaughters Isobel and Helena, by her sister Maureen and brothers David and Euan.