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Obituary: Margaret O'Flynn

Margaret O’Flynn (nee Boulton, formerly Foley) died peacefully on Monday 22nd September 2014 aged 94.

Known professionally as Margaret Foley, she was a Consultant Gynaecologist who devoted most of her career to the development and improvement of contraception, the sexual health of women and management of the menopause, starting at a time when the level of such services was poor, ultimately succeeding in delivering vastly improved facilities and services in Portsmouth and south east Hampshire. In 1970 she was awarded her FRCOG, becoming, with John Foley, the first husband and wife Fellows of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

Margaret was born in January 1920 in Talke of the Hill, North Staffordshire, the first of two daughters of Ernest and Edith Boulton. She went to school at Orme Girls School and eventually became Head Girl. She was inspired by her headmistress, Miss Sprunt, to consider medicine and at 17 took her first MB in 1937. Having been advised by her mother to take off her gloves to show off her surgeon’s hands, and possibly displaying other more important attributes at her interview, she was offered a place at King’s College Hospital Medical School, where she started her second MB. At the declaration of war in 1939, her father, a former Grenadier who saw active service in WW1, encouraged her to contribute during the summer vac to the war effort at North Staffordshire Royal Infirmary. In September 1939 King’s despatched their students to Glasgow to put them in a place of relative safety, and here she completed her 2nd MB. Returning to King’s London, she and other students lived in converted wards on the top floor of the hospital. Each time a siren went off she and other students reported for duty, fire watching on the roof, with long brooms to push incendiary bombs over the edge, or on stirrup pump duty below to put the fires out. Patients who were too ill to be moved to country bases were transferred to the basement shelters each morning by students who cared for them. As a house surgeon she interacted with her teachers, most of whom also lived in the hospital and contributed to the riotous fun of most of the evenings. They ate together in the House dining room and her teachers showed off their skills: John Peel (later Sir John Peel) could do a great total prostatectomy with an orange and a teapot.

In April 1943 she qualified and moved to her first job as an ENT house surgeon. Her boss was a woman who panicked regularly, helping Margaret become adept at spotting the women surgeons who lacked surgical courage. After a second house job supporting Sir Clement Price Thomas, the chest surgeon, her first gynae job was with Sir William Gilliatt and A C Palmer, who was not keen on female doctors because they ‘kept the good rugger players away’. The two did not speak so she and other junior doctors became the conduit of information between them. In her second year of obstetrics and gynaecology she joined John Peel – a mentorship and friendship that was to last until his death at 101 in 2005. John encouraged her to take her DRCOG quickly as a stepping stone towards her MRCOG, which she was awarded in 1949. Peel taught her everything about practical gynaecology and obstetric surgery, so that by the end of the second year with him he left her to do the routine Caesareans. Peel was ahead of the times in his attitude to gynaecology and he also taught her about contraception, much of which she managed at Kings, especially for the postnatal patients.

Between 1949 and 1952 Margaret was a Senior Registrar at the South London Hospital for Women, where she was offered and began a Consultant post. However, having in 1949 married John Foley, also a gynaecologist and given birth to her first child in 1950, choices had to be made about the development of both careers. At this time when many doctors had returned from the war and were trying to catch up, such Consultant appointments were like gold dust. So in 1952 when John Foley was appointed second Consultant in Obstetrics and Gynaecology in Portsmouth, Margaret gave up her post at the South London and reviewed other opportunities for advancement. Her thoughts turned to the then pitifully small area of contraception, women’s sexual health and management of the menopause, and she began to review the level of provision of contraceptive services in the Portsmouth region.

Margaret found there were a few clinics scattered through the Portsmouth district in decrepit buildings, supported by a voluntary committee of charitable women. The only medical member of this committee was the Deputy Minister of Health, Dr Malcolm Roads, who subsequently became a great help to her in getting the service into the NHS where it belonged. Her first success was to achieve free contraception for women (initially only for those with four or more children). She oversaw the opening of new clinics in all sorts of old buildings, which doctors and nurses often had to clean before starting work. The small amount of money for doctors’ and nurses’ salaries, and for free contraception came from voluntary contributions with some help from the Department of Public Health.

With the arrival of The Pill money began to flow. The numbers of patients increased steadily and increasing invasive methods (such as IUCDs) created demand for suitable buildings. She was offered a site for a new building at St Mary’s Hospital, Portsmouth , but only if she could find the money for a purpose-built central clinic. She visited the NHS administration in London, with a steely determination to get her own way. Finally she was offered £20,000 for the clinic, so the Ella Gordon Unit, as it was known, was built. With it came a great expansion of work, especially in the training of GPs for whom a three month stint was now a required part of their graduate training. She created annual training weekends for the family planning doctors and GPs, and called on the expertise of her medical friends for teaching, including Sir John Peel, Sir John Stallworthy, Dame Josephine Barnes, Mr Michael Kettle, and many others. Her ambition had been justified and her self-made career a success, though never so financially rewarding as an NHS Consultancy.

In 1976 Dame Josephine Barnes recommended Margaret for an opening as Consultant Gynaecologist in Abu Dhabi, at the Corniche Hospital, newly commissioned by Sheikh Zayed as a specialist obstetrics and gynaecology unit. She took a year’s leave of absence and became the Senior Gynaecologist there. In the same year, Margaret was offered by St Mary’s Paddington the position of first Consultant in Contraception and Sexual Health of Women. However, by this time following the death of John Foley in 1972, Margaret had remarried Garry O’Flynn, a GP, so she turned down this great opportunity, and returned to the Portsmouth area where she continued her work as head of Contraceptive and Sexual Health services for the region until she retired.

In her private life, Margaret was a formidable woman. Beautiful, a tremendous clothes horse and a bit of a spender, she was at her best when surrounded by friends and family and she was a terrific cook and gracious hostess. When she married John Foley she was excited about her newly acquired Irish relations with whom John had lost touch, and encouraged him to renew his links with his family, which continue happily to this day through her extended family. She loved to travel and visited many parts of Great Britain and Ireland with John, and much of the world with Garry. She was a combination of significant courage and strength, coupled with a kind of shyness. She remained independent well into her nineties, maintaining an elegant home and figure, reading voraciously, and she continued to be a fierce critic of the Conservative Party.

Margaret married John Joyce Foley in 1949, with whom she had four children, Jane, Patrick, Martin and Fiona – all delivered by Sir John Peel, and all by Caesarean section. After John Foley’s death in 1972, she married Michael Garrett (Garry) O’Flynn in 1977, and had 22 happy years with him until his death in 1999. Through Garry, Margaret became a stepmother to five – Anne (deceased), Sarah, Clare, Mandy and Joanna - and she joined Garry in happy years of enjoyment of the lives of her extended family, and many grandchildren, step-grandchildren and great grandchildren. Margaret’s oldest granddaughter, Clare Fiona Foley Gilliland is a midwife in Bath and her oldest grandson, Michael John Joyce Foley, qualified as a doctor this year.

Fiona Foley Croft