Lives of the fellows

Elizabeth Mary Bryan

b.13 May 1942 d.21 February 2008
MB BS Lond(1966) DCH Glasg(1968) MRCP(1970) MD(1976) FRCP(1989)

Elizabeth Mary Bryan (‘Libby’) was an honorary consultant paediatrician at Queen Charlotte’s and Chelsea hospitals in London and an expert in twins and multiple births, a field in which she achieved an international reputation. She co-founded the Twins and Multiple Births Association (Tamba) in 1978 to provide support and information to parents, and 10 years later, she founded the Multiple Births Foundation (MBF), a London based charity providing support both to parents and medical professionals.

Born in Halifax, her father was Paul (later Sir Paul) Elmore Oliver Bryan, a war hero who was Conservative MP for Howden for 32 years, a junior minister and vice-chairman of the party. Her mother, Betty Mary, was a physiotherapist. The eldest of three sisters, she had an idyllic childhood during which she claimed that viewing a film about African children in hospital at the age of six inspired her ambition to become a children's doctor.

Educated at Benenden School, she read medicine at London University and St Thomas' Hospital. Her studies were interrupted by the need to return home to help look after her mother who had developed bipolar disorder and who later died in a hotel swimming pool in 1968, when Elizabeth was a junior doctor. Sadly, her niece, Alice Duncan, inherited the disorder and committed suicide at the age of 22.

Finishing her training at Scarborough Hospital, she qualified in 1966 and began specialising in paediatrics. She did house jobs in York, followed by the Hammersmith Hospital where she was honorary senior registrar from 1973 to 1975. While there, she delivered a set of twins in which one baby was far more robust than the other owing to having taken a disproportional amount of blood and nourishment. This sparked a lifelong interest in multiple births and the challenges that they produced both physically and emotionally.

She moved back to York in 1975 and three years later co-founded the Twins and Multiple Birth Association and established the first clinics specifically for twins in London, Birmingham and York. In these clinics she encouraged experienced mothers to support new parents and pioneered the use of volunteers in a clinical setting. Also in 1978 she became an associate editor of Twin research and produced five sets of guidelines on multiple births for professionals.

In 1979 she was appointed a senior research fellow at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School and a consultant paediatrician at Queen Charlotte's Hospital. The rise in multiple births due to increasing use of fertility treatments brought clinical and ethical problems and she said that she 'believed that three babies at the same time was neither good for the babies, nor their mother, medically or psychologically'. In order to combat these problems she founded the Multiple Births Foundation (MBF) in 1988.

Initially run from her secretary's desk and then from a portakabin in Queen Charlotte's car park, the MBF was to become internationally recognised as an authority on the care, development and special problems of families with multiple births. Its director from 1988 to 1998 and then first president, Bryan managed, with great exercise of charm and enthusiasm, to ensure a steady stream of funding.

President of the International Society for Twins Studies, she travelled widely, lecturing on multiple births and initiating clinics and special training programmes. During her career she worked for periods in Australia, Zimbabwe and South Korea and lectured in Europe, North and South America, Africa and the Far East. She published a huge volume of papers in her field and five books of which Twins, triplets and more (London, Penguin, 1992) was translated into Japanese, Danish, German and Dutch.

A warm and empathetic person, she was one of the first to recognise the special problems of the remaining twin if one of them dies. A midwife who worked with her at Queen Charlotte’s recalled that ‘She looked at things people hadn’t thought of....like putting distressed newborn twins in the same cot so they could be close, as they had been in the womb.’ During her career she acquired 14 god-children (and 16 grand-godchildren) and she used to run summer camps for them in her Yorkshire cottage. A keen tennis player, she also listed ‘keeping ducks’ as one of her hobbies. A hard working and disciplined person (one of her colleagues maintained that she used to get up at 5 am to start work), she was also famous for her hospitality and throwing wonderful parties.

In 1978 she married Ronald Trevor Higgins, a writer, ecologist and former diplomat. They had a guard of honour of 25 sets of twins at their wedding. It was the great sorrow of her life that they were unable to have children and, when her only session of in vitro fertilisation failed, they wrote a book together Infertility: new choices, new dilemmas (London, Penguin, 1995). In it she frankly detailed her own attempts to get pregnant, including acupuncture and consulting a faith healer.

She retired from London in 2005 in order to spend more time with her husband. Giving up the MBF, she became the first chair of the National Home Start Consultancy Committee which sends volunteers out to help new mothers in their homes. Aware that her family had inherited the breast cancer gene BRAC1, indeed her youngest sister, Bernadette, had died of ovarian cancer in 1995, she had had preventative surgery but nonetheless developed symptoms of pancreatic cancer later in 2005. Characteristically she wrote a book about her experiences Singing the life: the story of a family in the shadow of cancer (London, Vermilion, 2008). It was a book designed to inform and comfort both patients and carers and, one commentator has remarked, it is ‘a lyrical celebration of life and what is to follow’.

When she died, she was survived by Ronald and her sister, Felicity Duncan, a breast cancer survivor.

RCP editor

[The Times 27 June 1995 and 26 February 2008; The Independent 23 February 2008; The Guardian 25 February 2008; The Daily Telegraph 23 February 2008; BMJ, 2008 336 1024]

(Volume XII, page web)

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