One of the last of St Andrews ‘lost medics’ awarded degree after 53 years

Tuesday 29 November 2022
Dr Judith Coles with her husband Robert Cheke and their son Tim
Dr Judith Coles is pictured with her partner, fellow St Andrews alumnus (BSc 1970), Robert Cheke, and their son Tim, after being awarded the BSc she began in St Andrews 53 years ago

One of the last of St Andrews’ ‘lost medics’ has marked her 75th birthday by finally graduating with the medical degree she began at the University 53 years ago.

As a child, Judith Coles dreamed of becoming a doctor, but she faced battling a system heavily weighted against women studying medicine. When she discovered only ten per cent of places at London medical schools were being awarded to women, she changed tack and applied to study elsewhere.

In 1966 she was offered a place to study for a BSc in physiology in St Andrews and after a 12-hour-long train journey from her home in north-west London, she arrived in the Old Grey Toun to begin the course with hopes of transferring to study medicine at a later date. Having never travelled any further north than Derbyshire, she wondered “where on earth (she) had come to”.

Offered a “bunk” in student lodgings run by “the formidable” Mrs Dillon and her daughter in Murray Park with seven other girls sharing just one bathroom – with one bath a week and a warning that “no man was ever to put a foot over the doorstep” – Judith’s experience of student life looked very different to that of today’s students.

However, her decision to study in St Andrews was “the best thing that could have happened to me”, she said.

After a year of studying zoology, physics and chemistry she performed well enough to persuade the Medical School to allow her to transfer and she completed the medical pre-clinical course and second MB exams in 1969. And while most of her fellow students then went on to undertake a further three years of their clinical training in Dundee, family circumstances led to Judith moving to Sheffield University where she gained her MB ChB medical degree in 1972.

After working in Sheffield for another four years and training towards becoming a hospital physician, Judith moved back to London where she completed higher specialist training at the Middlesex Hospital.

In 1983 she was appointed Consultant and Hon Senior Lecturer in Geriatric Medicine in Wandsworth, south-west London, based at St George’s Teaching Hospital and Medical School in Tooting. Judith was involved in running acute in-patient, rehabilitation and community services, had teaching responsibilities at the Medical School, trained junior doctors and specialty Registrars, and held management positions in the hospital Trust. She retired in 2017.

Commenting on her fondness for St Andrews, she said: “I have the happiest memories of my time at St Andrews, the beauty of the place, its history and traditions, and the social life. Particular pleasures were the proximity of the sea, the West Sands, Sunday morning pier walks in our red gowns, walking along the coast from Crail to Anstruther, dancing at gigs in the Younger Hall and the arrival of Sir Learie Constantine as Rector. There was also political activity with anti-apartheid protests against the visiting rugby tour by white South Africans and a fast in Market Street in aid of the Biafrans suffering starvation during the civil war in Nigeria.”

She added: “I have remained close friends with two of the girls I lived with in Glenerne lodgings in my first year at St Andrews and with another science classmate, and also see other alumni of our era who live near me, and I also attend London alumni events. The medical teaching I received was excellent, much of it in the old Bute Medical Building, and laid the strongest foundation and inspiration for my subsequent medical career.

“Sadly, because of my transfer to Sheffield, I lost contact with the others in my medical year but saw a reference in the St Andrews Chronicle magazine to a planned reunion in May 2022 to celebrate 50 years since our graduation as doctors. I subsequently attended this and was reunited with many of my former classmates.”

Judith went on to explain that it was at the Class of ’72 reunion that she learned about the group of ‘lost medics’ who, following the complications of Dundee becoming a separate University in its own right in 1967, had transferred to clinical training in other universities in 1969 and to Dundee in 1970 and had left St Andrews without any academic award to acknowledge their studies there.

She said: “I learned that, in 2003, this had been recognised by the University of St Andrews as an anomaly which should be put right, and the University had then awarded a BSc to those doctors who were traced. I had missed out on this but was encouraged to contact the University to see if this could be remedied for me too. The happy result is my graduation just happens to take place on my 75th birthday as well!

“I am very grateful and proud to have been given the opportunity to study at St Andrews for three years, and I am delighted to have my time there and academic achievements formally recognised.”

Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office.

Category Public interest stories

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