Obituary: David Baird, world expert in reproductive biology

Professor David Baird CBE, research scientist. Born: 13 March, 1935 in Glasgow. Died: 12 February, 2022 in Edinburgh, aged 86

Professor David Baird helped establish Edinburgh as a world centre for research in the field of reproductive biology

Professor David Baird had a long and impressive career as a clinical scientist, playing a key role in advances in fertility, abortion and contraception.

Described by one of his former colleagues as “a giant in his field”, he led the development of Edinburgh as a world centre for the study of reproduction.

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At 6ft 5in tall, he made an impact when he entered any room, but all those who met him were impressed by his knowledge and keen mind, and his sense of humour. He also inspired a large number of younger scientists to take up a career in reproductive medicine, and defended and promoted the cause of women’s health throughout the world.

Baird was born in Glasgow in 1935 to Dugald Baird and Matilda Tennent, who were both doctors. His father was a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at Aberdeen University and pioneered the treatment of women’s health, notably calling for the legalisation of abortion. The couple established the first free family planning clinic in Aberdeen, while his mother want on to serve on the city council and as a national governor of the BBC.

He was one of four children; one sister, Joyce, also went on to become a doctor, while his brother, Euan, had a long career as chief executive of the energy technology company Schlumberger and his other sister, Maureen, became an artist and psychologist.

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David attended Aberdeen Grammar School and Aberdeen University before going on to read natural sciences at Trinity College, Cambridge. He did his clinical studies at Edinburgh University, graduating in medicine in 1959, and went on to various roles in hospitals in the Scottish capital and in London.

In 1965 Baird was awarded a Medical Research Council (MRC) travelling fellowship which enabled him to carry out research at the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology in the US. He worked with Gregory Pincus and Min-Chueh Chang, who along with others developed the oral contraceptive pill.

On his return to the UK in 1968 he joined the department of obstetrics and gynaecology at Edinburgh University. In 1972 he was founding deputy director of the MRC Unit of Reproductive Biology, which firmly established Edinburgh as a centre for research in the field.

In the next few years he was offered roles in Cambridge, Melbourne and Adelaide but decided to remain in Edinburgh, and in 1977 he was appointed professor of obstetrics and gynaecology.

Throughout his career, he trained scores of young clinicians and scientists from around the world, inspiring them to conduct their own research. He also influenced the development of his speciality at numerous international conferences.

Baird was a champion of women in medicine and facilitated one of the first jobshares for women at high level in obstetrics and gynaecology.

In his clinical work, he helped many couples with their infertility issues, with dozens of children born as a result.

In 1985 the MRC and Edinburgh University offered him the specially created role of clinical research professor, in which he aimed to develop new approaches to contraception and study the related reproductive biology. His research led to the early development of assisted reproduction techniques, including ovulation induction and in vitro fertilisation (IVF).

He also undertook field research at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh, using sheep as a model for human reproduction, which led to new treatments for women left infertile by cancer treatment.

Baird was involved in the establishment of the drug RU-486 as a treatment for early unwanted pregnancy around the world by verifying its safety and efficacy.

In 1995 he launched the Contraceptive Development Network (CDN), funded by the MRC and the Department for International Development, linking researchers in the UK, China, Nigeria and South Africa. He retired from the university in 2000 but continued to work with the CDN.

Baird received many awards, published more than 400 scientific papers and was a member of prestigious societies including the Royal College of Physicians (London) and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He was awarded a CBE by the Queen in 2000.

The Baird Family Hospital, due to open in Aberdeen in 2023, is named for Baird, his parents and his sister Joyce, in recognition of the medical contributions they made in Scotland and to the profession.

The new hospital will offer maternity, gynaecology, breast screening and breast surgery services, as well as a neonatal unit, a centre for reproductive medicine, an operating theatre suite and teaching facilities.

Baird loved Scotland’s mountains, was a keen hillwalker and skier, and spent much time renovating a former croft near Strathtummel, Perthshire.

He is survived by his wife Anna, his sons Dugald and Gavin, their mother Frances and their four children.

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