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Obituary: Winnifred Jean Alexander Francis

Tribute to Winnie Francis – RCOG Council, Saturday 24th November 2007.

Winnifred Jean Aleaxander Francis (nee Graham) was born 25th October 1926 and died 13th September 2007 at the age of 80. If I was to use one word to describe her it would have to be charismatic. Those who remember her will I hope recognize that there were many other qualities that made her such an extraordinary woman.

She was born in Kilmarnock near Glasgow in 1926. Her father was a gas engineer and times were hard with work not easy to come by and so when Winnie was one he decided to move the family to Lancaster. This was where she grew up attending Lancaster Secondary School. At the age of 5 she was examined by the SMO, who diagnosed a congenital heart defect. The remedy was to be no exercise and in particular no running until she was in her teens. I'm sure on reflection this was to have an influence on her outside interests and which may well have had considerable bearing upon her sartorial outlook which I shall mention later.

She attended Liverpool Medical School and was the medalist in Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the end of the 4 th Year. She graduated in 1950 and spent her early postgraduate years at Clatterbridge Hospital on the Wirral and also the Liverpool Royal Infirmary. Her first Obstetrics and Gynaecology post was at Mill Road Hospital, in those days famous for two things: first as recorded in the Guinness book of Records as the largest maternity hospital in Europe and secondly as the background to the wartime story in which a stray German bomb landed dead centre on the operating theatre killing the general surgeon , the anaesthetist, the scrub sister and a number of attending medical students (you'll notice this was plural, in the days when students were students, when the firm was important and observing the consultant at work was considered a worthwhile experience) The patient, a Greek sailor survived his perforated ulcer and was eventually transferred to Sefton General Hospital for the completion of the operation. He survived and returned eventually to Greece. By the time of Winnie's appointment 7 years later the hospital theatres had been refurbished .

Her early Registrar years were at the Liverpool Maternity Hospital, under the tutelage of a certain Harold Francis and in addition Don Menzies and Professor Norman Jeffcoate.

It was during some of those early tutorials from Harold, a fantastic teacher and raconteur…..who incidentally still is at the age of 85…that he began to show just a little more than passing interest. Having met for the first time in October 1954 they announced their engagement on Christmas Eve that same year. Her father had been shot in the War and her mother who was always the dominant character in Winnie's life and ruled the roost was so flabbergasted and taken aback at the announcement of the engagement that she had a heart attack on the end of Winnie's phonecall tragically dying sometime later.

The marriage took place in the summer of '55 with a honeymoon in the Scillies… somewhere Winnie and Harold frequented for many years to come. They settled in Liverpool, on the South side near to Sefton Park where they lived bar 1-2 moves until she died.

She struggled a bit with the MRCOG but passed at the third attempt and then , as was the custom in those days attempted the FRCS….but unsuccessfully. Jeffcoate, however, felt she had considerable potential and appointed her as Lecturer. She graduated MD in 1959 and the subject matter ; “Disturbances of the bladder in relation to pregnancy” is still often quoted and on reflection was probably at least a decade ahead of its time.

In 1960 she was I think the last Blair Bell lecturer when the College had premises in Harley Street. She was appointed to a Senior Lecturer's post in 1963 and then after much persuasion by Jeffcoate (then PRCOG) to an NHS Consultant's post at the Liverpool Maternity Hospital and The Women's Hospital in Catherine Street. This was against a background of considerable male chauvinism in Merseyside never mind Liverpool. No one had previously been appointed without the FRCS and again the story goes that Jeffcoate needed to make ministerial representation prior to her appointment. Winnie was the first to break with such a tradition and begin the move towards the recognition of the MD and PhD in teaching hospital appointments.

She continued to work until her retirement from NHS practice at 65. Her expertise covered all aspects of our specialty. She was particularly interested in the fields of incontinence and prolapse and then latterly infertility. She was instrumental in introducing ovulation induction techniques with gonadotrophins to Liverpool leading onto assisted reproduction techniques. It was she who set up the GIFT and subsequently the IVF Unit at the Women's with Jon Hewitt. He had returned after 12 months research with Steptoe and Edwards and was keen to develop this practice. He was eventually appointed to replace her.

She was the doctors' doctor. She was the one the senior midwives would phone or ask for advice in times of stress. She delivered most if not all of the midwives themselves. Colleagues such as Dame Lorna Muirhead, recent past President of the RCM and now Lord Lieutenant of Merseyside was just one of those junior midwives who waxes lyrical of her love, kindness and above all devotion to her patients. Nothing was ever too much trouble. Advice and friendly support was always readily available even when Harold did answer the phone first. All this did was to add a further 15 minutes to the call. She was always available …..I say always …but the rider here depended upon where Liverpool Football Club were playing in the European Cup…in those days when I first met her in the early 80's they were in their prime either winning or at least challenging for honours. She was never a formal Director, as that wasn't allowed, but sat in the Director's box at home matches, delivered most of the wives of the team and was on the plane at all the away matches.

We would start the operating list often 18-20 cases in a day list and she would appear at 10-10.30 depending on the lateness of the away fixture and the arrival of the plane.

She was always immaculately turned out as if she'd stepped out of some haute couture salon. This was something one couldn't fail to notice and admire. She even had a different coloured Schaeffer fountain pen for each day of the week again to match the designer clothes of the day. She was a great lover of the fur coat and had plenty to choose from. At one RCOG visit to Moscow she even outdid the hosts when it came to sartorial elegance in the cold. On reflection she must have been the inventor of retail therapy as we know it today .

She sat on Council on no less than 3 occasions. 1978-84,1986-89 and then 1990-93 before Bob Atlay was elected as UK Fellows representative . She was a member of the Postgraduate Committee and was Chair of the Working Party on the role of Women Doctors in Obstetrics and Gynaecology. This too was ahead of its time and probably did not achieve the prominence it should have, there was some talk that it was too critical and did not receive favour by Council at the time.

She continued to practice privately on her retirement from the NHS before sadly declining health forced her to stop at the age of 70. She leaves a devoted and much loved husband, Harold and one of her remaining beloved Chiatsu dogs. Mr President I remember her with great admiration and affection.

David Richmond FRCOG, North West Fellows Representative on Council, 23rd November 2007