Lives of the fellows

Margaret Rigsby Becklake

b.22 May 1922 d.17 October 2018
GOQ(2011) CM(2007) MB BCh Wits(1944) MD FRCP(1972)

As one of the first women specialising in epidemiology and in respiratory medicine, Margaret Becklake (known as Margot) broke barriers for women, for epidemiologists and for pulmonologists. During the 60 years she devoted to medicine, research, teaching and mentorship, Margot Becklake combined her love of respirology and epidemiology, becoming a distinguished respiratory epidemiologist with an international reputation for her work. This elegant lady also earned the admiration and love of her patients and their families, colleagues and students in the UK, South Africa, Kenya and Canada.

Margot Becklake was born in London. Her parents, James Thomas Becklake and Dorothy Mills, emigrated with Margot to Pretoria when her father was appointed superintendent of South Africa’s Royal Mint, and where her sister Dorothea was born.

Margot Becklake completed high school at the age of 16. After qualifying in medicine at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in 1944, she did an internship at Johannesburg General Hospital. In 1946, Margot met another young doctor, Maurice McGregor, on the day he returned home to South Africa after serving in the Second World War. They moved to England, where they both undertook postgraduate training (Margot in respiratory medicine and Maurice in cardiology). They married in Berkeley, Gloucestershire in 1949. In 1950, they returned to South Africa, where Margot was appointed as a junior lecturer in medicine at the University of Witwatersrand.

In 1951, Margot published her first research paper in which she described a new way of testing respiratory function (‘A study by an open circuit method of the intrapulmonary mixture of inspired air’ Thorax.1951 Dec;6[4]:433-41). Throughout her career she was a prolific researcher. Her last publication saw print about 55 years later.

In 1954, Margot’s attention began to focus on industrial lung disease when she accepted an appointment as a physiologist at the Miners’ Pneumoconiosis Bureau, an agency that annually examined the health of workers in the South African gold mines. She established a lung function laboratory and began investigating lung function in gold miners. Through this work, Becklake was able to provide evidence that occupational exposure to rock dust in miners was causing them to develop chronic airways disease, a condition known today as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). As a result of this research, miners who had until then only been compensated if they developed silicosis also began to receive compensation for this condition.

However, life in South Africa was becoming more difficult after the National Party introduced Apartheid in 1948. In 1957 Maurice accepted a position as a cardiologist at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada and Margot became a clinical fellow at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. She was one of a rare group of women specialists who combined medicine and motherhood in 1950s Canada. She raised two children, James and Margaret, while supporting Maurice in his career. Margot Becklake juggled her career and parenting so well that her children did not realise her accomplishments until they were older.

At McGill, in addition to the department of medicine, Margot joined the department of epidemiology, where she set up a lung function laboratory to study occupational exposure to chrysotile asbestos among miners and millers in Asbestos, Quebec. She also studied childhood asthma in Canada and Kenya, and researched gender differences in airway behaviour over the human life span. In time her research would make a significant contribution to the global body of evidence that work-related exposures to dusts could cause COPD.

Margot ultimately held academic appointments in McGill University’s departments of medicine, experimental medicine, epidemiology and biostatistics, and occupational health. She was appointed as a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at McGill, and also professor of experimental medicine and medicine.

Margot held great respect for maths, science, accuracy, hard work and discipline. She expected nothing less from her trainees. She was a role model and mentor for a new generation of respiratory care physicians and epidemiologists with the same high standards of excellence. According to the Montreal Chest Institute Foundation, ‘Dr Becklake was renowned for her insistence about the importance of a clearly stated, relevant research question and more generally for her clarity and insight.’

In 1978, she was elected president of the Canadian Thoracic Society. In 1991, she became a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. She received the American Thoracic Society’s Distinguished Achievement award in 1997 and the American Thoracic Society’s World Lung Health award in 2001. She accepted the Union medal of the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease in 2006. In 2007, she received the Emeritus Population Health Researcher award from the Quebec Population Health Research Network.

In later life, Margot was appointed as an emeritus professor at McGill. She was also the recipient of honorary degrees at the universities of Witwatersrand and Massachusetts-Lowell. She became a Member of the Order of Canada in 2007, and a Grand Officer of the National Order of Quebec in 2011. She received a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee medal in 2012.

Margot died in Montreal, Quebec, Canada aged 96, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. She will be sorely missed by her family, friends, former colleagues and students. She was survived by her husband, Maurice McGregor, professor emeritus and former dean of the faculty of medicine, McGill University, their son James and daughter Margaret.

Barbara Kermode-Scott

[A conversation with Margaret Becklake (2003). Epidemiology. 14 November 2016 www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSATOe22qzU – accessed 28 February 2019; Montreal Gazette 19 October 2018 http://montrealgazette.remembering.ca/obituary/margaret-becklake-mcgregor-1922-2018-1070721984 – accessed 28 February 2019; The Globe and Mail 2 November 2018 www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-margaret-becklake-96-fought-apartheid-fiercy-before-becoming-an/ – accessed 28 February 2019; BMJ 2018 363 4894 www.bmj.com/content/363/bmj.k4894 – accessed 28 February 2019]

(Volume XII, page web)

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