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Admired academic Dame Beulah Bewley fought for more women in medicine

By Una Brankin

Dame Beulah Bewley, who has died aged 88, was one of the most prominent doctors and medical academics in the UK.

Born in Londonderry in 1929 to Ulster Bank official John Knox and wealthy heiress Ina Charles, Dr Bewley rose to become president of the Medical Women's Federation and treasurer of the General Medical Council (1992-99), an organisation she encouraged, along with the royal medical colleges, to take on more women.

As the middle child of three daughters, Beulah was inspired by her local GP's interest in her and her illnesses - including appendicitis - and often accompanied him on home visits in his pony and trap during the Second World War.

She met her psychiatrist husband Thomas Bewley while studying medicine at Trinity College, Dublin, and married him in 1955, when she was 25.

After early stints in hospitals in Essex and the US, the couple settled in Dublin. They went on to have five children, one of whom, Sarah, died at 44, from Down's Syndrome complications,

Dr Bewley worked part-time in women and children's health for a decade before retraining as an academic.

Later, she was made a Dame of the British Empire for her work for women in medicine.

In her memoir, My Life As A Woman and Doctor, she recalls her uncle Joe, a Liberal councillor, urging her, as a young girl, to opt for dentistry instead of medicine, with a view to meeting a husband.

"I thought this old boy was talking off the top of his head and decided he knew nothing," she wrote, adding that she followed her independently-minded spinster Aunt Betty's advice: 'No woman should be entirely dependent on a man'.

Supporters of the Alliance Party, the Bewleys were good friends with the Ulster author Jennifer Johnson and the late orthopaedic surgeon Paul Osterberg, and spent many family holidays at his home in Hillsborough.

When her youngest child, Emma, was three, Beulah went back to full-time education at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

An illustrious academic career followed, including high profile projects on family planning and on the effects of smoking on children, and upmarket social events in which she rubbed shoulders with royalty and film stars like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

She supported the 1967 Abortion Act, having seen a young woman who had died of an illegal abortion during her time as a medical student, and was always concerned about the dangers of children smoking.

Her research showed that even one cigarette a week in childhood made children's respiratory symptoms much worse.

A woman of faith, she was known widely as an extremely intelligent, strong-minded and positive person, who was a good sportswoman and musician in her youth.

Beulah retired in 1994, at 64. She is survived by Thomas (90), and their children, Dr Susan Bewley, Louisa, an accountant, Henry, a health and social policy officer, and Emma, a TV advertising producer.

"I think I'm ready to die," she concluded in her 2016 memoir.

"I don't want to die yet, but eventually.

"Between here and death, I'd like to be treated with respect. I'm certainly getting that from my family and friends.

"God is comforting in so many ways. So, I am very optimistic."

My Life As A Woman and Doctor, by Beulah Bewley, is published by Silverwood Books (hardback £25). See silverwoodbooks.co.uk

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