Obituary: Dr Margaret Fleming, surgeon and GP

Wartime surgeon who treated maimed and wounded soldiers returning from D-Day. Picture: Contributed
Wartime surgeon who treated maimed and wounded soldiers returning from D-Day. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 3 January, 1914, in Edinburgh. Died: 4 April, 2015, in Newcastle upon Tyne, aged 101.

Margaret Fleming was a wartime surgeon whose skills in the operating theatre were crucial to the maimed and wounded returning from the tumult of D-Day.

A woman born before the outbreak of the First World War – a conflict that it had been hoped would be the war to end all wars – she had found herself, just a generation later, propelled into the maelstrom that followed one of the 20th century’s most epic events as the world was embroiled in battle once again.

Having graduated with a medical degree a couple of years into the Second World War, she was working as a doctor at Edinburgh’s Gogarburn wartime emergency hospital when she was called up by the Royal Army Medical Corps to form part of a mobile medical team.

It was the early summer of 1944 and plans for a military invasion of unparalleled scale were being put into action amidst the greatest secrecy.

With no idea where she was heading but having already anticipated a hush-hush move might be on the cards, she had already devised an enigmatic message in which she would call her mother with instructions to cancel her “hair appointment”. It was her code to signal that she was being posted south.

Margaret left Edinburgh on the eve of D-Day and treated the returning casualties of the Normandy Invasion, serving as an assistant surgeon during amputations and operations to treat the bullet wounds suffered by troops who had taken part in the mission known as Operation Overlord.

Although the largest Combined Operation in history was a success for the Allies and marked the beginning of the end for Hitler, the carnage on the beaches of northern France was as shocking as some of the losses at the Somme.

Margaret, whose skills and expertise were vital to the clearing stations, went on to become a GP and reach her century. She later recalled: “When I was younger I always wanted to be part of history – it’s only recently I’ve realised that I was.”

The daughter of a medical family – her father William Walker was doubly qualified as a doctor and dentist and her mother Jessie was a nurse – she was born at their home in Edinburgh’s Inverleith Row which also served as her father’s practice.

After being educated initially by a governess, she attended the capital’s St Denis School where she became head girl. At one time she had hoped to train as a nurse but decided instead on medicine, despite never having had the chance at school to study any of the sciences.

However, her father encouraged her not to go straight into a medical degree and gave her the option of having a year abroad at a finishing school or taking and arts degree.

She opted for the latter, studying subjects including French which was to prove a practical advantage when treating wounded French soldiers.

She graduated with an MA from the University of Edinburgh in 1938 and then, following a crash course in science, embarked on her medical studies there, graduating MBChB in 1941.

From there she went to Gogarburn where part of the facilities, which normally accommodated people with learning difficulties, had been turned over to become an emergency hospital dealing with surgical cases from the forces.

On 5 June, 1944 – the day before D-Day – she was part of a surgical team of six who left Edinburgh bound for the south of England. Initially Margaret, who was the assistant surgeon, was posted to Horton Hospital, Epsom. Several weeks later she moved to Park Prewett in Basingstoke, a psychiatric hospital-cum-military clearing station where the man regarded as the father of plastic surgery, Sir Harold Gillies, who had pioneered facial reconstruction during the Great War, also worked during the Second World War.

Although she had dealt with casualties at Gogerburn, including some German prisoners of war, the aftermath of the invasion was an eye-opener. The advent of penicillin meant that many more of the wounded could be treated by antibiotics and survive to be operated on back in the UK rather than succumb to infection in the field.

And with so many men in the medical profession already away serving their country, the situation gave Margaret the opportunity to become involved in work she may not otherwise have experienced.

After the war ended she married John Fleming back home in Edinburgh in 1946. They had first met as schoolchildren – he was seven, she was eight – through a family link. Her aunt married his uncle and when Margaret and John saw each other again as adults it was love at first sight.

The couple, who were married for almost 60 years, moved to Gosforth in Newcastle upon Tyne where she worked as a doctor for Marks and Spencer and as a medical expert assessing the health issues of retired miners. By the 1960s she was working as a GP, combining the job with the role of mother to their son Charles.

Margaret, who retired at the age of 64, had many interests outside work, including Scottish history, and was a member of the Saltire Society until the end of her days.

She and her husband had also been life members of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne which they joined in 1947, and she was involved in the Pybus Society for the History of Medicine. She was also an active member of her local church and had been president of the Gosforth Musical Society.

Philosophical about her limitations as she aged, she remained determined but adaptable, a woman of strong moral principles and who retained a deep attachment to her Edinburgh alma mater. She returned for the 60th anniversary of her medical year and last year, having turned 100, attended the centenary of her old school’s former pupils’ association, cutting the cake and making a brief speech.

Predeceased by her husband John, whom she had cared for at home for several years after he developed Alzheimers’ disease, she is survived by their son Charles.