Scotsman Obituaries: Donald Macleod, surgeon and sports medicine pioneer

Donald Macleod, surgeon and sports medicine pioneer. Born: 4 March 1941 in Selkirk. Died: 13 November 2022 in Innerleithen, aged 81

The multiple honours and prestigious awards garnered by Donald Macleod during a career devoted to surgery and sports medicine reflect the universal esteem in which he was held by his peers. Yet while the letters which followed his name bear testimony to Donald Macleod’s many and varied accomplishments, they cannot do full justice to the character, integrity and understated brilliance of this remarkable man.

His passing on 13 November, at 81, has robbed the country’s medical and sporting communities of a true champion and innovator. His legacy in sports medicine will continue to promote, prioritise and protect the wellbeing of all sportsmen and sportswomen, whether professional or amateur.

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Graduating with a degree in medicine from Edinburgh University in 1965, Donald served as the Scottish Rugby Union’s team doctor from 1969-1995, and would eventually become its president.

Donald Macleod was widely respected for his work in sports medicine
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Former player and coach Jim Telfer said: “Donald was integral to the development of the backroom staff at Murrayfield and was responsible for building up its team of doctors, physios and fitness advisers. I first met Donald when I was captain of Scotland in 1969. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s I watched him build up the medical network to make it world class, not just in relation to the senior Scotland side, but for the ‘B’ team and the under-18 and under-21 XVs as well.”

When Jim Telfer travelled to New Zealand as coach of the British Lions in 1983, the tour management team comprised just four members – Jim, tour manager Willie-John McBride, Donald as medical adviser and Kevin Murphy as physio.

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“Donald and I worked hand-in-hand on the tour, and he would often act as confidante to the Lions players. I leaned on him very heavily during that time, for as coach I was under intense pressure. He would calm me down and offer reassurance about what I was doing.

"During the early eighties Donald and I built up a tremendous rapport. This was cemented later in the Grand Slam victories of 1984 and 1990, when Donald and physio David McLean both made huge contributions to Scotland’s success.

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“During my time I’ve met quite a number of outstanding individuals, both in the teaching profession and in my rugby career, and Donald Macleod is up there with the best of them.”

Donald Angus David Macleod was born in Selkirk’s Viewfield Hospital in 1941. His father William, a medical graduate, was a native of Stornoway while mother Nancy hailed from Selkirk and was a children’s nurse.

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Not long after his father returned from the war, Donald and his younger sibling Frances moved with the family to Edinburgh, where his brother Angus was born. Donald initially attended Edinburgh Academy, from where he won a scholarship to Gordonstoun School in Moray. It proved the making of him. The school’s motto, Plus Est En Vous (There is More in You), chimed with Donald’s desire to broaden his horizons, while the emphasis placed by the school on outdoor pursuits nurtured a passion for the countryside that was to stay with Donald all his life.

On leaving school he won a place to study medicine at Edinburgh University, and in the following six years would regularly turn out as openside wing forward for the Edinburgh Academical rugby team.

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It was at Edinburgh University that Donald would meet the love of his life, Lucile Kirkpatrick from Thornhill in Dumfriesshire. In the same year and studying on the same course, the couple were married a year after their graduation, on September 6, 1966, in Thornhill’s Congregational Church.

When Donald was appointed consultant general surgeon at Bangour Hospital in 1975 the family moved to a new home in Livingston. When Bangour closed, Donald transferred to St John’s Hospital. His years at Bangour were particularly happy ones, and Donald collaborated with William F Hendrie to write a history of the village and hospital, The Bangour Story, to help preserve the memories.

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Iain Macintyre, Surgeon to the Queen in Scotland from 1997-2004, who worked with Donald at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and succeeded him as Vice-President, said Donald was an ideal surgical role model – “dependable, decisive, resilient, yet always courteous and considerate”.

He added: “Donald had studied emergency and trauma surgery in Baltimore, Maryland, and brought that experience to Bangour Hospital, where he took consultant responsibility for the Accident & Emergency Department.

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“However, it was in sports and exercise medicine that Donald made his mark, nationally and internationally.

“He was a major driving force behind the formation of the Faculty of Sports and Exercise Medicine, the body which to this day governs sports medicine in the UK. The Faculty was formally launched in 2006 by Princess Anne, who as a former Olympian took a keen interest in sports medicine. She described the crucial role Donald had played in the development of sports medicine, while a subsequent speaker described Donald as ‘the father of British sports and exercise medicine’.

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“He served as Honorary Professor of Sports Medicine at Aberdeen University, among many other honours,” added Iain, “yet all of this took place alongside a career as a busy working surgeon. His contribution to surgery was recognised by his election as Vice-President of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and his appointment to the General Medical Council.

“Donald’s professional life was one of dedication and service to surgery and surgical patients.”

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On his retiral in 2001, Donald and Lucile moved to the Borders, purchasing a property in a stunning location at the top of the Ettrick Valley.

Rugby remained a passion for Donald, and he and Lucile would regularly travel down to watch Selkirk play at Philiphaugh. After joining the club’s committee, Donald served as Selkirk president from 2009-2011.

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Donald’s appointment as Scottish Rugby Union president in 2013 was a source of special pride. His knowledge, commitment and amiability won him widespread respect.

For relaxation, Donald looked forward to his regular Friday fishing get-togethers with three friends on Bowhill’s Lower Loch, while both he and Lucile were enthusiastic members of the Forth Valley Orienteers.

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While living in the Ettrick Valley, Donald would cycle a round trip of 14 miles to pick up the morning paper, and the couple were able to indulge their mutual love of hillwalking in the beautiful countryside surrounding their home.

Maintaining a regime of regular physical activity was second nature to Donald Macleod. He and three friends completed the Great Outdoors Challenge – walking coast to coast across Scotland – on three separate occasions, and he would also regularly run half-marathons.

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His feats on a bike were even more remarkable. These included cycling from Land’s End to John O’ Groats at the age of 70; cycling 222 miles from Aberdeen to Ardnamurchan; and completing the London to Paris Bike Ride Challenge in 2005 to raise funds for Action Medical Research.

After moving to Innerleithen in 2018, Donald continued to cycle in the Tweed Valley, and ride his mountain bike along the more challenging forest trails at Glentress. He was inducted into the Scottish Borders Sporting Hall of Fame in 2006.

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Donald is survived by Lucile, children Rona, Torquil and Janette, and grandchildren Grace, Peter, Lauren and Caitlin.

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