Obituary: Elizabeth Fairgrieve, occupational therapist who touched countless lives

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Elizabeth Fairgrieve, occupational therapist. Born: 7 September, 1934, in Dumfries. Died: 17 March, 2017, in Dundee, aged 82

Had Elizabeth Fairgrieve’s parents accepted a medical professional’s callous view that she would never be academic, countless disabled youngsters and struggling patients would have missed the chance to lead immeasurably enhanced lives.

As a child herself, eight-year-old Elizabeth suffered a particularly bad dose of measles, leading to severe short-sightedness. The verdict of her ophthalmologist was that an academic career was out of the question: she should just be put to work on the land.

Despite overhearing the remark, a comment Elizabeth she admitted temporarily blighted her attitude to learning, she flourished at school and, encouraged by her parents, trained as an occupational therapist. The job – and her sense of adventure – took her across the Atlantic and back a couple of times and led to her pioneering sensory integration therapy in the UK and to developing occupational therapy in children’s services in Dundee, where she became a member of Tayside Health Board.

Born in Dumfries, to parents who both came from Hawick, Elizabeth originally hoped to go into fashion design, an ambition vetoed by her father, a clothes factory production manager. Her childhood was spent in Macclesfield, Newark and Shirley near Croydon, where she left Croydon High School for Girls at 17.

Occupational therapy (OT) was a little-known career option at the time but as she was artistic, and it was often based on crafts, it appealed to her creative side. She began studying at St Loyes School of Occupational Therapy in Exeter in 1952, leaving her first year exam paper unfinished to dash up to London for the Queen’s Coronation.

During her time at college she found hospital practice an eye-opener, dealing with all social strata, from patients in London’s east end to psychiatric cases in affluent Surrey.

After qualifying in 1955 one of Elizabeth’s first jobs was helping patients undergoing thoracic and plastic surgery at the Frenchay Hospital near Bristol. A couple of years later she emigrated to Canada, setting initially in New Westminster, British Columbia, where she worked with patients with learning difficulties, and later in Montreal where she set up a department in an infectious diseases hospital.

Elizabeth embraced life in Canada, visiting cousins in the Prairies, enjoying water sports, skiing in the Laurentian mountains and beginning a lifelong love of Scottish country dancing, gaining a teaching certificate and dancing in the demonstration team.

When she decided to come home in 1960, Elizabeth took the long way round, travelling across America and up to Vancouver by Greyhound bus before sailing back via Panama and the Caribbean.

On her return she lived in St Albans and was appointed senior occupational therapist to the cerebral palsy unit at Harperbury Hospital, Hertfordshire, working alongside Dr Karel Bobath. He and his wife Berta founded the Bobath course, a neuro-developmental approach to the treatment of cerebral palsy, and Fairgrieve, who completed the course, was the first occupational therapist to work with the couple.

She later moved to Paisley and worked at Corseford School for disabled children in Renfrewshire. But by 1968 she hankered to return to Canada and spent a year living and working in Vancouver. However, before coming home again the Scottish Council for Spastics – now known as Capability Scotland – paid expenses for her to visit treatment programmes in the United States. They included one by Dr A Jean Ayres, who pioneered Sensory Integration Therapy in California and whose work she had come across while working at Harperbury.

Back in Scotland she returned to her post at Corseford School before going to the Glasgow School of Occupational Therapy, where she gained her teaching diploma, from the College of Occupational Therapists, and also worked. But she missed clinical contact with patients and when the opportunity came to move to Dundee as head occupational therapist she took up the challenge.

Part of Elizabeth’s new role involved developing and integrating occupational therapy into existing children’s services, including at establishments such as the Armitstead Child Development Centre, Kingspark School and Strathmartine Hospital, and latterly in mainstream schools. At one point she was also Dundee’s first district occupational therapist.

During her career she introduced OT to children with cerebral palsy in Ancona, Italy and in the early 1970s pioneered sensory Integration Therapy in the UK, making Scotland the first place to practise the discipline. She went on to co-develop a series of post-graduate courses and was a prime mover in forming the Sensory Integration Network (UK and Ireland). She sat on Capability Scotland’s board and on its professional advisory committee and became the Scottish Eastern Regional Group’s representative on the College of Occupational Therapists’ Council. In addition she was still involved in research and published papers on the effectiveness of therapy services, patterns of service delivery and quality assurance.

However, juggling her managerial role with continued clinical work took its toll and, after suffering what she described as “burn out”, she retired early in 1993, although she subsequently taught on post-graduate courses. For much of her professional career Elizabeth had also lived with and cared for her widowed mother, sacrificing her own social life in the process.

With more spare time available she picked up activities such as hillwalking and Scottish country dancing, again becoming part of a demonstration team, this time in Dundee. She travelled widely, made a round-the-world trip, visited Australia three times and enjoyed holidays in the Middle East, Zimbabwe and Latin America, learning some Spanish for the latter.

Voluntary work included befriending through Dundee Carers and she was involved in her local church, Broughty Ferry New Kirk, through the Heart for Art dementia art project and support for the World Concerns Group.

Elizabeth joined the Group, she said, after her travels “underlined for me more than ever how fortunate we are in UK, where poverty is relative compared to other Third World countries”. Having been so closely involved with children’s welfare all her working life, she supported SOS Children’s Villages and visited children in Arequipa, Peru, where, in an emotional but rewarding encounter, she finally met the young boy she sponsored.