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BMJ. 2007 April 14; 334(7597): 805.
PMCID: PMC1852038

Doreen Mary Tillotson (née Robertshaw)

I should like to pay tribute to the life of our dearest mother, mother-in-law, and granny. One of the things we admired most about her was that she was always so modest about everything she did, so this tribute is pieced together from many fragments that had to be prized out of her over the years.

My mother was born on 21 May 1905—four years after Queen Victoria died—in Bradford, then the heart of the wool trade where her grandfather and great uncle had both founded mills (John Mitton & Co (Worsted Spinners) and Thomas Henry Shaw (Woolcombers)). Her father was a wool merchant. When he could not afford to send her to Bradford Girls' Grammar School, her teachers suggested she apply for a scholarship, and when she was awarded the top scholarship in the school, the director of education asked her parents to take her to meet him.

On leaving school in 1923 she went to Leeds University Medical School. It was not then common for girls to go there, and at 18 she was one of only four girls in her year, with just 18 girls in the whole of the medical school. Soon afterwards, her parents moved to Menston, which meant walking 20 minutes to Guiseley, half an hour on the bus to Leeds, and then walking another 15 minutes to the university, twice a day. At 23 she was visiting the slums of Leeds and doing locums in Sheffield and York, and, for a spell, she worked in TB clinics.

In 1929, a year after qualifying, she put her plate out in Menston and started a practice at the age of 24 without a single patient. The main practice in the village was run by men who said: “She'll only last six months!” Gradually, though, she built up a practice and during the war was very busy as many doctors were called up. Visiting patients at night was difficult during the blackout. She visited them on foot and in an Austin 7 with the number DT 9405 with hooded headlights; and when she was 100 my brother, John, wrote “MENSTON” before the “100” on his birthday card to remind her that the telephone number of her practice had been “Menston 100.” In those days doctors dispensed their own medicines and John and I were occasionally roped in to help; but we were only ever allowed to mix a very mild cough mixture called Linctus Infans. My mother always liked hats and once during petrol rationing she was stopped by the police and asked if she was going to Wetherby races because of her fancy hat! Throughout the war she was divisional surgeon of the St John Ambulance Brigade and gave weekly lectures on first aid in the village.

After 20 years she retired from general practice, and we moved to Ilkley when she became assistant medical officer of health for Skipton for five years. The practice she sold still carries on today, after merging with the main practice in the village: ironically, the same practice that had given her only six months all those years before! Only a week ago [December 2006] she still received Christmas cards from two of her original patients and, when I told one of them that she had died, she said: “She was always so wonderful to us as children.”

When my mother was in practice, she found a lot of lonely old people living on their own with no one to look after them properly, so she asked the Methodist Homes for the Aged if they would help by opening a home in Ilkley, saying that she would get members of the Ilkley Soroptimist Club—of which she was a founder member and president—to work to establish it. At first they had no money. But six months later, impressed by her offer, they wrote and said they now had some funds; and she worked hard in establishing “Glen Rosa” for many years before coming to Leicester in 1953, when my father, Ambler, was moved down here by the bank. In 1958 a Methodist home called “Aigburth” was opened in Leicester, and she worked hard for that, too, for many years.

Also after moving to Leicester, where she was doing school medical work, in about 1958, she was asked by someone from Save the Children Fund's headquarters if she would start a committee in Leicester. This she did, and it has been a most happy and hard working committee ever since; she was still their vice-president when she died. Mrs Lucy Moss [see below] has written: “Save the Children Leicester Branch were very proud to have Doreen as their vice president. Always most sociable, she supported all our functions and we are still invited to hold a Christmas stall in Wing which she started 20 years ago. She was unique, and we shall miss her.” My mother was a founder member and still patron of the European Union of Women in Leicester and served on the Leonard Cheshire Homes Committee as well as being a member of the Leicester Soroptimist Club.

My mother was always a well-organised person. She was a very practical person, too, and also had the knack of getting to the nub of a problem that we could never quite match. For example, when various members of the family had been claiming for 30 years on flimsy evidence that we were descended from the former Archbishop of Canterbury John Tillotson in the 17th century (1691-1694), and I told her that I was finally going to try to get to the bottom of this, she simply said: Did he have any children? I then quickly discovered that he had only two daughters, and we had our answer in a flash.

One of her hobbies was music, which stemmed from a good grounding. Before going to school every day she was made to practise the piano for half an hour and again in the evening, as a result of which she was a very good sight reader. My aunt tells me she remembers her as a girl just sitting down and playing her party pieces: Sinding's Rustle of Spring and Grieg's Butterflies.

Another hobby was gardening. She designed a fine garden in Menston and loved being in her garden in Wing every day, where she created a magnificent herbaceous border.

In a way, a friend of hers said to me recently, in bringing up twins and running a practice during the war when her husband was away, she was a modern woman before her time.

But, she was above all a family person. Today [at her funeral] we celebrate her life and give thanks for it. We shall continue to take from it our memories of her unfailing kindness, her generosity, her good sense, her strength, and her readiness to encourage and praise all of us for things well done, including her grandchildren: in short, you might say, her interest in life and good spirit which lasted to the end. Her niece wrote to me: “We shall remember her with great affection and I think the impression that she made on us all was greater than she could imagine.” We admired her greatly and were always so proud of her. [Tribute, 28 December 2006.]

Mrs Lucy Moss, Save the Children Fund Leicester Branch, writes:

Save the Children Leicester Branch were very proud to have Dr Doreen Tillotson as their vice president. Before suffering hearing problems in her later years she was a hard working member of the committee and quite the smartest one.

Always most sociable, Dr Tillotson supported the lunches, concerts, coffee mornings, and sales held to raise funds for the children. She always had the welfare of the children at heart and led the way when extra funds were needed for them in wars, famines, the tsunami, and the Asian earthquake.

Dr Tillotson was unique, and we shall all miss her. We are still invited to hold a Christmas stall at Wing, known locally as the Tillotson stall, which she started 20 years ago.


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