Dame Clare Marx obituary

Pioneering surgeon who became the first female chair of the General Medical Council

The trailblazing surgeon Clare Marx, who has died aged 68 from pancreatic cancer, broke innumerable glass ceilings and leaves a profound legacy. As the first female chair of the General Medical Council, she brought a culture of compassionate leadership to the organisation and consistently championed women in medicine.

Working initially at St Mary’s hospital in Paddington, west London, Marx was the first British female trauma and orthopaedic (T&O) surgical trainee (1981) and the first female T&O consultant (1990). Surgery in this field was a bastion of masculinity, and Marx got used to incredulity and being asked “if my hands were big enough” or “when I plan to leave the playing field to the boys”.

She said that she never saw herself as a “female surgeon” – she was simply a surgeon. But it was wearying: “It took an awfully long time to get people to look at me rather than at the lovely young man who was my houseman; they turned to him for all the answers.”

In 1989, Marx married Andrew Fane, a neighbour from her London block of flats. He was based in Suffolk, and in 1993 she moved to join him in East Anglia, working at Ipswich hospital, where she became clinical director.

It was not enough to be a trailblazer; Marx wanted to bed in change and ensure there were more women surgeons coming along behind her. Although half of medical school entrants were female, few chose surgery and, of the ones that did, not enough put themselves forward for senior posts. If patients were to have the best surgical care, hospitals needed to fish the entire talent pool and Marx worried that it could take a further 50 years to see changes; so she decided to join the medical governing bodies.

She became the first female president of the British Orthopaedic Association in 2008 and of the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) in 2014. She knew she had benefited from mentors who believed in her. When she was 16, work experience with an orthopaedic surgeon neighbour led her to decide on surgery; and later, during her training, other more experienced surgeons encouraged her. Marx felt mentoring could boost women’s self-belief and encourage them to risk applying for senior roles. She established the Emerging Women Leaders group at the RCS and took every opportunity to mentor women herself, and direct them to supportive male consultants.

Asked by Country Life magazine in 2016 to recommend a favourite painting, Marx chose Picasso’s Science and Charity. It shows a doctor taking a patient’s pulse and summed up her credo that a surgeon’s skill-set encompasses empathy, listening and kindness as much as science and technique. As president of the RCS, she produced a new edition of its manual Good Surgical Practice, stressing the importance of communication. The standard surgeons should aspire to was: “I would be happy to be treated this way if this patient were me or a member of my family.”

In 2019, Marx was elected chair of the General Medical Council (GMC). Yet again she was the first woman in the role, and it came at a particularly difficult time: coinciding with the Covid-19 pandemic. More doctors were needed, and Marx’s campaign encouraged around 30,000 to re-register.

She made it clear she wanted to lead the GMC in a compassionate manner and was more invested in supporting frontline doctors than in discipline and catching them out. She used ethics workshops and programmes to tackle undermining and bullying behaviours and began a system of filtering complaints and dealing with them locally, so fewer people had to go through the highly stressful investigatory process.

Born in Coventry, West Midlands, Clare was the daughter of Brenda (nee Johnston), a teacher and magistrate, and Francis Marx, a German industrial chemist who had fled to the UK with his family from Heidelberg in 1934. She also had an elder sister, Irene. Her interest in medicine came through very early. When she was five, she went to hospital with an injury to her finger and cruised the waiting room asking people what was wrong with them.

Marx’s mother used to volunteer helping people newly arrived from overseas to settle in. When a local hotel would not accept a guest because of the colour of their skin, she flagged it up to the Race Relations Board. The Marx’s house was daubed with racist slogans, but Marx said, “In the face of this, my mother was totally solid. She just got on with things and stuck to her values. She deeply inspired me.”

Marx went to school in Warwick and then to Cheltenham Ladies’ college, before studying medicine at University College hospital in London, qualifying in 1977. Junior jobs in Coventry and Northampton followed, before she began training in T&O surgery in 1981.

In 2018 Marx was made a dame and in May 2022 attended the beginning of work on a centre for orthopaedic surgery named after her in Colchester.

Dismayed at Brexit and a passionate European, when her father had his German citizenship restored just before his 100th birthday, Marx too became a German citizen.

In July 2021, everything in Marx’s life changed following a diagnosis of inoperable pancreatic cancer. She stepped down from the GMC, writing a moving open letter to the medical profession that began: “Since receiving this news, I’ve been reminded once again of the importance and power of kindness in everything we do as doctors.”

Marx used some of her remaining time to support the work of Pancreatic Cancer UK and their mission to get the disease diagnosed earlier.

She is survived by Andrew, her father, Francis, her sister, Irene, and two nephews, Jonathan and Robert.

  • Clare Lucy Marx, surgeon, born 15 March 1954; died 27 November 2022


Penny Warren

The GuardianTramp

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