Obituary: Sam Galbraith, brain surgeon and politician

Born: 18 October, 1945, in Clitheroe, Lancashire. Died: 18 August, 2014, in Glasgow, aged 68

Sam Galbraith: Brain surgeon who became one of Scotlands most respected MPs and MSPs. Picture: Ian Rutherford

SAM Galbraith was a top Glasgow brain surgeon as well as a Labour MP at Westminster when he received one of the first ever lung transplants in 1990 and doctors gave him a 50-50 chance of surviving for a couple more years. He lived to defy their predictions for almost a quarter of a century, became one of the first and most respected MSPs and Scottish ministers, and was believed to be the world’s longest surviving lung transplant patient until he died on Monday. Partly due to his principled stands, his straight talking, altruism, charity work and passionate support for the NHS, his death first caused shock and grief but later brought personal tributes across political party lines and far beyond Scotland.

Complete with transplanted lung, Galbraith continued to serve as Labour MP for the suburban Glasgow district of Strathkelvin and Bearsden, where he had ousted the Tory incumbent Michael Hirst in 1987. He represented the constituency for 14 years until his retirement for health reasons in 2001. In 1988, Labour leader Neil Kinnock had named him shadow minister for health, where his commitment to the NHS first became obvious.

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He also served for a time as Labour’s UK employment spokesman, appointed by John Smith, but left to focus on his constituents in Strathkelvin and Bearsden, as well as his new wife and baby. He had married a medical student, Nicola Tennant, in 1987.

After Labour swept to power in 1997 and Tony Blair beamed his way into 10 Downing Street, Blair named Galbraith his Health and Sports Minister for Scotland, working with Secretary of State for Scotland Donald Dewar. Galbraith wasted no time in seeking more funding for the NHS in what he saw as key, deficient areas.

One of the first politicians to speak out publicly about obesity and the dangers of fast foods and sugary drinks, he launched a campaign to educate Scots, notably the least well-off in the industrial Central Belt, about a healthier diet with the ultimate aim of extending their below-average life expectancy.

After the 1998 Scottish Act which followed the devolution vote, Galbraith was one of the few Labour MPs at Westminster to run for Holyrood, winning the Strathkelvin and Bearsden seat, although most observers were surprised that Dewar, in naming the new Scottish Executive, gave him the Children and Education portfolio, rather than the obvious Health job.

There were those who said Galbraith had become too passionate about the old NHS at a time when reform appeared vital.

The education portfolio caught the always well-meaning Galbraith somewhat out of synch and saw him reluctantly at the forefront of the Scottish exams fiasco just after the turn of the millennium, when the results of thousands of students were affected by inaccuracy or sheer incompetence.

As the responsible minister, he took the formal flak but pointed an unusually aggressive finger at the Scottish Qualifications Authority, saying he had warned it time and again of the dangers of the system but it had refused to listen. “Worthless,” he once called its methods.

Generally mild-mannered and softly spoken, Galbraith often put his calmness down to the days after he had been diagnosed with fibrosing alveolitis, a rare genetic lung disease which also killed his older sister Kathleen. At that time he assumed he would not live for long. But if he felt the occasion required it, his words could cut like a skean dhu, as when, at Holyrood in 2001, he told an SNP MSP he was “talking b******ks.” Cue shock from the Edinburgh establishment, who felt “such Clydeside language” was “rather too colourful and unnecessary”.

His last political job was as minister for environment, sports and culture in 2000 but he resigned within months, citing health reasons and the need to be with his family.

The son of a joiner who studied to become a schoolteacher, Samuel Laird Galbraith was born soon after the end of the war in 1945 in the small town of Clitheroe in Lancashire’s Ribble Valley, best known for its native son, the tiny post-war radio and early TV comedian Jimmy Clitheroe. But the Galbraith family moved north to Greenock when he was a child and he considered himself very much Scottish thereafter, having attended the now-demolished Greenock High School on Dunlop Street.

It was on his Greenock housing estate, he said later, that he first saw the link between poor diet, public health services and opportunities for a better life. He got into the University of Glasgow, gaining degrees in both Science and Medicine, becoming an MD in 1977.

Within a year, he was appointed as a consultant neurosurgeon at the Glasgow Institute of Neurological Services in the Southern General Hospital in Linthouse, south-west Glasgow. He was still only 32, apparently the youngest consultant the hospital had ever had, and his skills were said by older doctors to have saved many lives.

Although he was diagnosed with lung disease in 1987 in what he came to consider as his home city, Glasgow, and thinking “I could be dead within days,” Sam Galbraith had to be rushed south, sirens blaring, to Newcastle in 1990 after hearing a new, healthy, donated lung was available. It was still a very new procedure and Galbraith remembered wondering whether the sirens would be the last sounds he heard.

But he arrived safely at the city’s Freeman Hospital, the operation was considered successful – although his lifespan was then impossible to predict – and he maintained a lifelong respect for the Freeman Hospital and all things Geordie.

A statement Alistair Darling said the family had asked him to make on their behalf read: “Sam’s family wish to thank staff at the Glasgow Western Infirmary for their care, as well at Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital, where he received his lung transplant and received much follow-up care thereafter.”

Galbraith was an accomplished skier, loved running and was a true mountaineer, one of those purists who wanted to leave the ground without artificial aids.

He had climbed all of Scotland’s Munros but also tackled mountains in the Alps and the Himalayas. After retiring from brain surgery, Westminster and Holyrood, he found more time to sail his small yacht based near his holiday home in Strachur, on the Cowal peninsula between Loch Long and Loch Fyne in Argyll and Bute.

His Clydeside roots shone through when, in 2006 and in retirement, he became chairman of the Scottish Maritime Museum, based on the Clyde near Dumbarton Rock and at Irvine, Ayrshire, keeping alive the spirit of the vessels, builders and sailor who made the west coast of Scotland famous in their day.

When he retired in 2001, Galbraith said: “I’ve been very lucky. Now I need to protect my health. I was too busy to allocate time for swimming and a lunchtime walk, for example, so it really is time to go. Scottish MSPs and MPs work very hard; you’ve got to be around and doing things all the time. I need more time to organise a keep-fit regime.”

Given the problems he had to face, he remained extremely fit, in mind and body, far beyond the time scale his doctors predicted.

After surviving the lung transplant and the various drugs and counter-drugs, he lived to see a heart and lung transplant centre initiated in Scotland, at the Golden Jubilee National Hospital in Clydebank, although lung transplant patients are still mostly rushed to hospital in Newcastle.

Until he died, Galbraith still hoped to change that fact and ensure that Glasgow and Edinburgh had enough state-of-the-art equipment to avoid that ambulance trip he made to Newcastle when he assumed he would die.

He also raised millions for health charities, including a £60,000 health centre in Nicaragua.

Sam Galbraith died in Glasgow’s Western Infirmary after contracting an infection. He is survived by his wife of 27 years, Nicola, and their daughters Mhairi, Heather and Fiona, to all of whom he dedicated his life after retiring both as a surgeon and, in 2001, from the hurly-burly of political life.