Mabel Tannahill obituary

Other lives: Psychiatrist who established a new academic sub-department of psychological medicine in north Wales

My friend and colleague Dr Mabel Tannahill, who has died aged 90, was a psychiatrist and champion of mental health in Wales. In 1990 she established an academic sub-department of psychological medicine at Denbigh, the first university centre for any branch of medicine in north Wales. This boosted her specialty and brought about a sea change in staff morale and recruitment in psychiatry in the region.

Mabel was born in Glasgow, the only child of parents who moved among leading cultural figures of the city from the 1920s to the 60s. Her father, Andrew Tannahill, a poet and translator, was a close friend of Hugh MacDiarmid and a descendant of the “Weaver Poet” Robert Tannahill.

Her mother, Mary Reid, a painter, was a student of Francis Newbery, director of the Glasgow School of Art; his wife, Jessie Newbery, was an ardent suffragist and feminist. It was under this influence that Mary determined that her scholastically talented daughter should follow a “serious” profession rather than a career in the arts.

After Shawlands academy, Mabel gained admission to Glasgow medical school, graduating in 1957. Soon after, she married a fellow doctor, James Allan, and the couple moved to London, where Mabel switched specialties from public health to psychiatry.

Unusually for those times, Mabel managed to combine the role of mother, raising two sons, with rising up the hospital training ladder to become a part-time consultant and senior lecturer at St Thomas’ hospital. She and her husband moved to Liverpool in 1975 on his appointment as senior company doctor for Unilever. Mabel decided that they would live in north Wales (“another Celtic country”) and became a consultant at the North Wales psychiatric hospital, Denbigh.

James died prematurely from a heart attack in 1979, and six years later Mabel married David Jones, a public health physician and chief administrative medical officer for Clwyd health authority. As in many rural areas at this times, north Wales psychiatry was going through a medical recruitment crisis. The difficulties worried the Wales Office, to whom Mabel and David presented a bold solution: the establishment of an academic unit in the middle of north Wales.

Following some years of negotiation driven by Mabel, the funding was agreed and a sub-department was established in 1990 in collaboration with the University of Wales College of Medicine in Cardiff. With generous start-up staffing funds, the sub department was housed in a refurbished Italianate villa, the former matron’s house, overlooking the picturesque ruins of Denbigh Castle, and a rising star from the Institute of Psychiatry, London, Greg Wilkinson, was attracted to become its first director.

Mabel continued to work as a consultant psychiatrist until retirement in 1994. She undertook many prominent roles in Wales including as adviser in Wales to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, but she always maintained her inherited links with the arts in Scotland, establishing in 2007 a Glasgow University fund to support Scottish literature.

She is survived by David, her two sons, Graham and Gavin, from her first marriage, two granddaughters and a grandson.

Peter McGuffin

The GuardianTramp

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