Obituary: Marjorie Ritchie, animal scientist

Marjorie Ritchie: Animal scientist who played a part in the cloning of Dolly the Sheep
Marjorie Ritchie: Animal scientist who played a part in the cloning of Dolly the Sheep
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Born: 29 March, 1948, in Edinburgh. Died: 25 March, 2015 in Edinburgh, aged 66

When the teenage Marjorie Ritchie applied for a job in a wool technology lab almost 50 years ago she could never have envisaged the global media frenzy that would engulf her over a specimen named 6LL3.

Not a trained scientist, she had begun her career looking at different fibre types in the laboratory at the Animal Breeding Research Organisation (ABRO) in Midlothian. But three decades later, and mostly self-taught, she had risen to become a senior scientific officer in charge of the large animal unit at what was by then known as the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute.

And in 1996, in an operation kept a closely guarded secret, she played a key role in the creation of the phenomenon known as Dolly the Sheep, working as part of the surgical team responsible for the world’s first cloned mammal.

Originally known as 6LL3, Dolly, born on 5 July that year, was named after the well-endowed country and western star Dolly Parton – a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that the cell from which she had originated had come from the mammaries of a donor sheep. The famously self-deprecating singer’s manager was later reputed to have said there was no such thing as “baa’d publicity”.

As for Marjorie Ritchie, she became particularly fond of the little lamb, whose birth caused a worldwide sensation, and went on to live just outside her office.

Born in Edinburgh, the daughter of Helen and James Fordyce, young Marjorie grew up with two brothers and attended Corstorphine Primary and Granville School for Girls before completing her education at Forrester High School.

She had always had a love of animals but her interest in animal science may well have been fuelled in her childhood through a relation who worked for ABRO in charge of sheep husbandry at Dryden – where Dolly was later housed. As a result of the family connection she enjoyed many visits there and saw the arrival of merino sheep from Australia.

After leaving school and having seen an advert for a job at ABRO, she joined the organisation in 1966 at the age of 18, on an annual salary of £566. Initially involved in the wool lab researching different fibre types, she later joined the Farm Animal Department, based at Dryden, where she worked her way up, acquiring scientific expertise on the way.

In 1988 she married Bill Ritchie, a fellow Roslin scientist and member of the Dolly team which made the historic cloning breakthrough with the birth of the normal and vigorous lamb after hundreds of failed attempts.

They achieved what had been believed to be absolutely impossible. Marjorie’s role involved selecting the animals, planning and setting up experiments and providing the surgical skills to transfer the developing embryos into the surrogate recipient. Dolly was eventually born to a black-faced ewe and when the news finally leaked out Marjorie admitted it was “overwhelming”.

She told BBC Radio 4’s The Reunion, which brought the team together again a few years ago, that the success was “an achievement beyond all dreams in many respects but when the news broke it just was amazing”.

The discovery inevitably sparked some controversy and a debate about the potential for human cloning and she recalled: “In some respects I got a bit angry at some of the reaction. It was all to benefit medicine in the long term. Human cloning was not anything that had ever been mentioned.”

She also admitted that she had become very fond of Dolly, who went on to have her own offspring. “She was very tame and that was partly the attraction. She did not regard man as the enemy and would actually respond to her name – that’s not normal sheep behaviour.”

However, she did reveal that Dolly, who became overweight and had to be put on a diet, had been likened to a coffee table with four legs.

Over her years at Roslin, Marjorie developed a wide variety of scientific and practical skills and, in addition to her role in scientific research, she acted as a mentor for scores of young scientists and technicians.

Her influence is recognised by scientists in laboratories and institutes worldwide and Professor Sir Ian Wilmut, who led the Dolly team, credits her extraordinary expertise as a vital factor in the project’s success. Her role is also commemorated in a portrait held in the collections of Edinburgh’s Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Her love of animals was the major driving force behind almost half a century she spent working at the Roslin Institute and she constantly strived to ensure that all the farm animals under her charge received the utmost care and attention.

Latterly she was dismayed when her physical involvement with the animals was curtailed after she developed multiple sclerosis.

She conceded that she had been “reduced to keying in data” and admitted that she missed her animal life greatly.

Although the creation of Dolly opened up the possibilities of developments in therapeutic medicine she did not believe a cure for her illness was imminent, she told The Reunion’s Sue MacGregor.

“I think it’s come a long way since Dolly was born, I think it’s given a focus for people to find cures for diseases. I would say yes, there’s greater hope than there has been but I don’t think there’s a cure round the corner.”

Following her death, the flags of Edinburgh University were flown at half-mast in recognition of her long service and dedication.