Lives of the fellows

Alexander Logan Speirs

b.4 April 1921 d.30 August 2008
OBE(1979) MB ChB Aberdeen(1943) MRCP(1949) DCH(1952) MD(1954) MRCP Glas(1967) FRCP(1971) FRCP Glas(1971)

Alexander Logan Speirs (‘Sandy’) was a consultant paediatrician at Stirling Royal Infirmary and Falkirk and District Royal Infirmary. It was largely due to his persistent questioning and research from 1959 onwards that uncovered the danger to pregnant women of the drug Thalidomide.

Born in Aberdeen, he was the son of Alexander, a schoolmaster, and his wife Elizabeth Logan née Hastie, the daughter of Alexander Clark Hastie, who was a farmer. Educated at Aberdeen Grammar School (where his father taught), he studied medicine at the University of Aberdeen and the Royal Infirmary (ARI). Graduating in 1943, he did house jobs at the ARI before joining the RNVR as a surgeon lieutenant for the remainder of the Second World War, then serving in the Fleet Air Arm until 1947.

On demobilisation he resumed training in paediatrics at Aberdeen and qualified in 1949. Two years later he was appointed senior registrar in paediatrics at Stobhill Hospital in Glasgow where he stayed until 1954, passing his MD with a thesis on children suffering from acute bowel cancer. He then became a consultant paediatrician at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Glasgow. In 1955 he moved to Stirling and assumed responsibility for the children’s and neonatal wards at both the Stirling Royal Infirmary and the Falkirk and District Royal Infirmary. Here he began a programme of modernising the paediatric services to ensure that the care of babies (and their mothers) was of the very best. Anxious to ensure that this extended to all members of the team, he lectured regularly at the Royal College of Midwives and also to students at the Forth Valley College of Nursing.

In 1959, concerned by what he considered to be an unusual number of babies being born with severe limb deficiencies, he began questioning their mothers about any drugs they might have taken during the course of their pregnancies. Worryingly he got vague or negative replies from the patients and similar responses from their GPs. He checked their prescription records and discovered that eight of the 10 mothers concerned had taken Thalidomide (then marketed as Distaval). It was thanks to his prompt action in publishing his results that the drug was immediately withdrawn from the market in the UK and further tragedies were averted. His article ‘Thalidomide and congenital abnormalities’ (Lancet, 1962, 1, 303-5) became required reading for the profession.

As a result of his research, he gained an international reputation and, in May 1962, Paris Match ran a three page spread on his work profiling the ‘Young Scottish doctor who lives a nightmare in his maternity unit’. He became president of the Scottish Paediatric Society in 1985 and was made an OBE in 1979.

A popular member of the community in Bridge of Allen, where he and his family had lived since 1960, he played golf locally both at Dunblane and Gleneagles. He also enjoyed walking the Perthshire Hills until he had a series of strokes in his late 70s. Reluctant to abandon all forms of exercise after the strokes, a friend described him attacking the balls on a driving range ‘with gusto’. He was a talented pianist and was equally happy playing music by Chopin or Scottish country dance music.

In 1945 he married Inez Mary née Brebner, whose father Hugh was a schoolmaster. They had two daughters. Inez predeceased him followed by their daughter, Elizabeth (‘Liz’) Middleton who died in February 2008 leaving two sons, Michael and Neil. When he died later that year, he was survived by his other daughter, Pam.

RCP editor

[The Scotsman www.scotsman.com/news/obituaries/dr-alexander-speirs-1-1090739 - accessed 14 April 2015; The Herald Scotland www.heraldscotland.com/dr-alexander-speirs-1.890368 - accessed 14 April 2015; BMJ 2008 337 1296]

(Volume XII, page web)

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