Sixty years after her graduation, an alumna’s pioneering work in palliative care in Canada has been officially recognised.
Dr Gillian Gilchrist (nee Mackrell) graduated from Edinburgh Medical School in 1956 and worked for the majority of her career in Ontario, Canada, where she was integral to the development of palliative hospice care.
Now, the Gillian Gilchrist Chair in Palliative Care Research at Queen’s University in Kingston recognises her several decades of work developing and nurturing the field in the region.
Born in Yorkshire, Gillian was drawn to Edinburgh because of her love of Scotland and the reputation of the city’s medical school. Gillian recalls how it was the ‘go-to’ place to study medicine, a fact that made her decision to go there an easy one.
Gillian has fond memories of her university days, which include what she describes as the 'exquisite dissection demonstrations' by renowned anatomists Professor James Couper Brash and Dr Edward Bald Jamieson.
She was also taught by famed professor Sir Stanley Davidson, the author of ‘Principles and Practice of Medicine’, a textbook that is now in its 22nd edition and still considered essential reading for medical students worldwide.
Gillian fondly remembers her extracurricular activities, too. "Besides the excellent teaching we also had so many opportunities to be involved in a whole host of clubs, from music to fencing," she says. "I made the very most of the extracurricular opportunities available, even practising Fine Art with Professor David Talbot Rice [the art historian after whom the University’s art gallery is named]. He informed me that I was his first ever science student."
She was also part of the women’s coxed four who won the UK Championships in 1953 for University of Edinburgh Boat Club.
Following graduation, Gillian and her husband, fellow 1956 MBChB graduate Bill Gilchrist, decided to emigrate. They moved to Winnipeg, Canada, and started a family.
In her early career there, Gillian worked mostly in paediatrics, both clinical and research. She was also a physician in the regional Early Childhood Screening Programme, which was only the second such programme in Canada and assessed 10,000 pre-school children.
When Gillian took up the post of Medical Director of Ontario County Home Care in 1978, it signalled a new direction for her career into palliative care, a field in which she became a pioneer.
From 1980 until her retirement in 1998 she was the Medical Director of the Palliative Care Team at Oshawa General Hospital, and became the driving force behind the establishment of the Palliative Care Service there in 1981, the first in Canada to be based in a non-teaching hospital.
She worked hard to recruit a truly multidisciplinary team including clinicians, nurses, social workers and volunteers. The team were available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and they worked across all six regional hospitals, nursing home and people in their own homes too. This was a real first for the region and was received extremely positively.
The establishment of the Chair at Queen’s University in Kingston is a fittingly proactive tribute. Made possible by a $2.5 million donation from Oshawa residents Hak-Ming Chiu and Deborah Chiu, the Chair is in partnership with a local community hospital and aims to attract an academic palliative care physician for both clinical and scholary work.
Gillian retired in 1998 and enjoys her time gardening and visiting her family in Calgary. She says: “In my years of practising medicine and of providing palliative care I have learned from my thousands of patients, their families, and my many colleagues that the time of living before someone dies can be one of the most important and rewarding times of our lives.”
Dr Gillian Gilchrist is not the only link between Edinburgh Medical School and the Faculty of Medicine at Queen’s: a number of its 1854 founders were Edinburgh medical alumni.