Lives of the fellows

Lilly Magdalena Suzanne Dubowitz

b.20 March 1930 d.14 March 2016
MB BS Melb(1956) DCH(1962) MD Sheffield(1973) FRCP(1996)

Lilly Dubowitz was an influential paediatrician who, with her husband Victor Dubowitz, created revolutionary new tests for assessing the gestational age and neurological development of new-born babies.

She was born Lilly Sebök into a Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary. Her father, Julian Sebök, was a textile engineer; her mother, Hedwig Sebök née Popper, was a housewife. During the Nazi occupation of Hungary, Julian Sebök was sent to a labour camp and died of a heart attack after his release; Hedwig and Lilly hid in a safe house and used false papers provided by the Swedish embassy. At 16, after the war, Lilly emigrated to Australia. Despite having little English and being dyslexic, she found a job in a biochemistry laboratory and eventually persuaded the University of Melbourne to let her study medicine part-time. She graduated in 1956

After residency posts in Melbourne, in 1958 she went to Hammersmith Hospital in London to train in endocrinology. In 1960, she met the neurologist Victor Dubowitz at a picnic; the two were engaged within two weeks and married three months later at the West London Synagogue.

Lilly moved with her husband to Sheffield, where she became a paediatrician, as she said ‘by accident’, after being offered a temporary post in the department of paediatrics. At the time, there was no means of assessing whether a baby born with a low birth weight was premature or was for some reason under-developed or under-nourished. After studying more than 400 new-borns, Lilly Dubowitz was able to develop a visual scheme of signs (a combination of neurological and ‘superficial’ – external – indicators) showing stages of development, meaning gestational age could be estimated. In 1970, Lily and Victor Dubowitz wrote up their findings in a hugely influential paper, ‘Clinical assessment of gestational age in the newborn infant’ (J Pediatr. 1970 Jul;77[1]:1-10), and the ‘Dubowitz Score’, as their visual scheme came to be known, is now in use around the world.

In 1972, the Dubowitzs moved to London, and Lilly became a research lecturer at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School at Hammersmith Hospital. In 1980, also with Victor, she developed the neurological assessment of pre-term and full-term new-borns, providing charts and instructions showing how to perform neurological examinations. At Hammersmith, she was also involved in introducing magnetic resonance imaging to neonatology.

In her spare time she enjoyed restoring Persian rugs, cooking, silk painting, pottery, photography, beadwork and collecting, and travelled extensively with her husband. After her retirement in 1995, she researched the life of her uncle, Stefan Sebök, an architect who vanished in Russia during the Second World War. She visited archives abroad, accessed KGB files and discovered that Sebök had worked extensively with the Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius. Her book In search of a forgotten architect: Stefan Sebök, 1901-1941 (London, Architectural Association) was published in 2012.

She and Victor had four sons – David (a radiologist), Michael (a cardiologist), Gerald (an anaesthetist) and Daniel (an architect) – and ten grandchildren.

RCP editor

[The Guardian 8 May 2016 – accessed 31 May 2018; The Times 14 June 2016 – accessed 31 May 2018; BBC Radio Four Last Word 15 May 2016 – accessed 31 May 2018]

(Volume XII, page web)

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