Obituary: Iain MacLaren, distinguished Scottish surgeon, author, piper and public speaker

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Iain Ferguson MacLaren FRCSEd FRCSEng FRCPEd, surgeon. Born: 27 September 1927 in Edinburgh. Died: 
3 October, 2019 in Edinburgh, aged 92

Iain MacLaren was a distinguished surgeon who honed his craft under two of 20th century surgery’s towering figures – Professor Sir James Learmonth in Edinburgh and, across the Atlantic, Korean War veteran Dr John M Howard.

Like his mentors, he went on to be respected both internationally, as a surgeon, examiner and lecturer, and at home, where he was vice president of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, where a research centre bears his name.

Yet, as a young graduate, MacLaren’s life hung in the balance when he contracted tuberculosis just as he was hoping to establish his career. Fortunately another Edinburgh physician, Prof Sir John Crofton, had recently developed a “triple therapy” for the potentially fatal infection and the pioneering treatment was a key factor in his recovery, though the illness cost him 18 months of his working life in recuperation.

The son of a GP, it was perhaps unsurprising that he would gravitate towards medicine after leaving the city’s Fettes College, which he attended on a scholarship. Just 17 when he started as a medical student at Edinburgh University, MacLaren graduated MB ChB in 1949, at the dawn of the NHS, and immediately did an internship as house surgeon to Prof Learmonth. He would later return to work with the renowned Scottish surgeon, a man he much admired.

National Service interrupted his career when he served as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps. A proud Scot, he sported his kilt on selection day but his hopes of being attached to a Highland regiment were dashed when he was drafted into the East Lancashire Fusiliers, going on to serve in Egypt and Cyprus.

Then, after a short period as a demonstrator at Edinburgh University’s anatomy department, he went into general practice working with his father, Dr Patrick MacLaren. Although he enjoyed the job, a year later he took the difficult decision to become a surgeon – a choice he never regretted.

The move took him back under the wing of Prof Learmonth at Edinburgh Royal infirmary (ERI), where he became registrar before going on, in the same position, to the surgical unit at the city’s Royal Hospital for Sick Children and later returning to ERI as senior surgical registrar in 1959.

During an eight-year spell there he spent a year in the United States as a fellow in surgical research in Dr Howard’s department at Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital in Philadelphia. Dr Howard had been a battlefield medic in a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War of the early 1950s. He ran the US Army’s surgical research team in Korea and was reportedly the inspiration for Hawkeye Pierce in the US hit TV series on the conflict’s medics, M*A*S*H. MacLaren fondly remembered his time working with Howard, by then a renowned expert in vascular and pancreatic surgery, and they became lifelong friends.

From 1967 until his retirement in 1992, MacLaren was consultant surgeon to Edinburgh’s Deaconess and Leith Hospitals and the city’s Royal Infirmary, enjoying the contrast between the more informal atmosphere of the former and the great history and heritage of the latter.

Throughout his career he had served the Royal College of Surgeons in the capital, being elected vice president from 1983-86. He also spent many years as an inspector of hospitals, examiner of surgical students, in the UK and abroad, and guest lecturer. That work took him to Iraq, Libya, Zimbabwe, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Nepal and Myanmar, among others. Latterly he was head of the Professional and Linguistics Assessment board of the General Medical Council, ensuring that doctors who qualify abroad have the right knowledge and skills to practise here.

He was the author of numerous publications but is probably most widely known for his work with co-editor Iain Macintyre on Surgeons’ Lives, an anthology of figures from the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh’s illustrious 500-year history.

An immensely sociable, hospitable man and accomplished public speaker, MacLaren also held office in various clubs and societies, including as president of the Harveian Society of Edinburgh, Old Fettesian Association and Edinburgh University Graduates Association.

Outwith medicine he was enthusiastic and impressively knowledgeable about Celtic history, traditions and folklore. Both his parents were Gaelic speakers, something that had rubbed off to some extent. He was a member of An Commun Gaidhealach, chaired the Clan MacLaren Society for many years – one of his proudest moments was leading the march of the clans at the Highland Gathering at Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina – and chieftain of Clan Labhran.

One of his other great passions was music, particularly the bagpipes. He’d been involved with the Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society since 1945, serving as honorary pipe-major and secretary, and had been known to pipe the turkey into various Edinburgh hospitals on Christmas morning.

He is survived by his wife Fiona, daughter Catriona, son Patrick and four grandchildren.

ALISON SHAW