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Professor Mollie McGeown (1923 - 2004):
Physician; nephrologist; health service pioneer

Mary Graham McGeown was a highly distinguished figure in Ulster medicine and the medical world generally, who especially made considerable contributions to research and treatment of kidney disease, to which she dedicated much of her career, gaining the highest reputation for successful, life-saving transplant programmes. In fact, she was effectively the founder of the Northern Ireland renal service. 

Known generally as Mollie, she came from a farming family whose land, Prospect Hall, Aughagallon straddled the border between County Antrim and County Down though it was also close to County Armagh. Her father, James Edward McGeown, died relatively young – in his mid-forties – and during the lean decade of the 1930s Mollie had to contribute to farm work as well as her school work. However, she attended Lurgan College, not far from home and in 1940 entered Queen's University, Belfast, to study medicine. She enjoyed an outstandingly successful student career, winning prizes and medals as an undergraduate, and in 1946 graduating MB, BCh, BAO, with honours. She studied for her MD degree under the distinguished, and formidable, John Henry Biggart, who was impressed by her abilities but would not give her an appointment under him, because he refused to employ married women (as she had recently become). Having failed to obtain a post at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children, apparently for the same reason, she instead developed research interests in biochemistry and human metabolism and completed her PhD on phosphate esterases in milk.

In 1953 she was awarded a grant by the Medical Research Council (in fact, a five year fellowship), as a research fellow in the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, she worked under Professor Graham Bull (later Sir Graham Bull), who had recently been appointed the first full-time professor of medicine at Queen’s. During this time, she built up an international reputation specialising in calcium metabolism, hyperparathyroidism, and kidney stone disease. The 1950s saw many and interesting developments in urology and the treatment of kidney disease; dialysis using an artificial kidney was introduced. At first, this treatment for Northern Ireland patients was not available there, necessitating travel to England, to Hammersmith Hospital, London. At this time, some 200 patients in Northern Ireland died each year from this kidney disease. John Megaw, a consultant urological surgeon at Belfast City Hospital, lobbied successfully, with the backing of Professor Bull and others, for the provision of a dedicated facility in Ulster, and in 1958 McGeown, despite her limited clinical experience, was nevertheless appointed to set up and run it, and in 1959 she duly began, with the delivery to the new unit at Belfast City Hospital of a twin coil artificial kidney early in June of that year. Things were rushed: McGeown, along with some colleagues, had no time to undergo formal training, so using the equivalent of an instruction book, they taught themselves how to use it and soon were able to use the equipment successfully for the first time.

Throughout the 1960s, though she was solely in charge of the unit, she was developing it, building up a specialist nursing and laboratory team. Under her charge, the unit developed what came to be known as the “Belfast Recipe”, for the treatment of kidney disease. This was a combination of low dose steroids, cautious antirejection, vigilant post-transplant care and a continued support in the event of graft failure. The Belfast Recipe returned a rate of 80% cumulative graft survival at 5 years, and had a low patient mortality; this was an achievement unparalleled anywhere else in the United Kingdom at that time. McGeown had played a central role in demonstrating that kidney transplantation could be both successful and relatively safe. In 1971 came the establishment of the Northern Ireland Kidney Research Fund, on the instigation of one of her former patients; McGeown was patron of the body. 

Mollie McGeown officially retired in 1988, but continued to research and publish until 2003. Over her career her publications – articles and book chapters – numbered over 350. Her posts, honours and accolades make a long list. She was the first woman, and the first physician, to be elected an Associate Member of the British Association of Urological Surgeons. She was made a Professorial Fellow in medicine in Queen’s University in 1988. She chaired the United Kingdom Transplant Management Committee, 1983–1990, was President of the Renal Association, a council member of the British Transplant Society, President of the Ulster Medical Society, 1985–1986 and was appointed to chair the Corrigan Club (the cross-border body of physicians in Ireland) in 1987. She received honorary doctorates from the New University of Ulster in 1983 and from Queen’s University in 1991. In 1985 she was appointed CBE. The Royal College of Physicians of Ireland awarded her both the Corrigan gold medal, 1987, and the J Creery Ferguson Gold Medal in 1997. She was appointed Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh, 1969; Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, London, 1978; and Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland in 1982.

On the 50th anniversary of the National Health Service in 1998, she was named as one of the fifty women who had contributed most to its success. In 2002 a portrait of her by Larry Coulter was hung in the Great Hall of QUB; she was the first woman so honoured. The regional renal unit in Belfast City Hospital was named in her honour. 

When still an undergraduate, and impecunious, McGeown, wishing to enter a prestigious medal competition, could not afford the entrance fee of ten shillings. However, a sympathetic university administrator offered to lend her the fee personally, on the condition that if she won she would return it, though if not he would waive it. When she did win and went to repay, the administrator Max Freeland, promptly invited her out and they were married not long afterwards. Maximilian (Max) Freeland was widowed with two sons, and he and McGeown had three more of their own. Freeland had a long career at Queen’s University Admissions Office; he died in 1982. Despite her own work and time commitments, she never failed as devoted housewife and mother; it was said that never did she fail to prepare the family’s evening meal. 

An obituarist wrote (in Nephrology Dialysis Transplantation):  

“As a nephrologist, Mollie's chief qualities were her wide background knowledge, shrewd clinical judgement, dedication, administrative ability and legendary force of character. Small in stature, and not possessing perfect health, she nevertheless wielded immense authority, aiming always at excellence and expecting to find it in her colleagues. Having encountered male medical prejudice in her early career, and scepticism when setting up the renal service, an element of steel had entered her professional personality. One of her greatest strengths was her readiness to adopt new ideas if scientifically proven, but she was a trenchant critic of views which she considered unsound. Slipshod methods or thinking exasperated her, as some discovered to their discomfiture. 

“However, what really set her apart was her commitment to patient care, which I witnessed on countless occasions and learned from constantly. This, combined with her humanity and underlying generosity of spirit, inspired exceptional respect and affection among colleagues and especially patients.”

Professor McGeown's portrait, executed by Laurence Coulter in 2002, is on display in the Great Hall of Queen's University.

On 23 July 2023 the Ulster History Circle dedicated a Blue Plaque in her memory at Lurgan College, unveiled by her grandson Jonny. 

Born: 19 July 1923
Died: 21 November 2004
Richard Froggatt

(inter alia) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Dictionary of Irish Biography; BMJ 2005 February 12; 330(7487): 365; A McCreary & BM Walker: Degrees of Excellence (Belfast, Institute of Irish Studies, 1994); James F. Douglas, “Laudatio for Professor Mary G. McGeown”, in a Festschrift volume, Nephrology Dialysis Transplantation, 13 (1998), 1380–85; private information