75th birthday graduation joy for one of St Andrews’ ‘lost medics’

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One of the last of St Andrews’ ‘lost medics’ has marked her 75th birthday by graduating with the medical degree she began at the university 53 years ago.

As a child, Judith Coles dreamed of becoming a doctor, but she faced battling a system heavily weighted against women studying medicine.

When she discovered only ten per cent of places at London medical schools were being awarded to women, she changed tack and applied to study elsewhere.

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In 1966 she was offered a place to study for a BSc in physiology in St Andrews. After a 12-hour-long train journey from her home in north-west London, she arrived in the Old Grey Toun to begin the course with hopes of transferring to study medicine at a later date.

'Lost medic' Dr Judith Coles and her family.'Lost medic' Dr Judith Coles and her family.
'Lost medic' Dr Judith Coles and her family.

Offered a “bunk” in student lodgings run by “the formidable” Mrs Dillon and her daughter in Murray Park with seven other girls sharing just one bathroom – with one bath a week and a warning that “no man was ever to put a foot over the doorstep” – Judith’s experience of student life looked very different to that of today’s intake.

After a year of studying zoology, physics and chemistry she performed well enough to persuade the Medical School to allow her to transfer, and she completed the medical pre-clinical course and second MB exams in 1969.

And while most of her fellow students then went on to undertake a further three years of their clinical training in Dundee, family circumstances led to Judith moving to Sheffield University where she gained her MB ChB medical degree in 1972.

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After four years working and training towards becoming a hospital physician, Judith moved back to London where she completed higher specialist training at the Middlesex Hospital.

In 1983 she was appointed consultant and honorary senior lecturer in geriatric medicine in Wandsworth, south-west London, based at St George’s Teaching Hospital and Medical School in Tooting. She retired in 2017, but St Andrews was always close to her heart.

She has remained close friends with two girls she shared lodgings with in her first year, and with another science classmate, and also sees other alumni of her era who live near her

A gathering in 2022 to celebrate 50 years since their graduation as doctors saw her reunited with many former classmates - and it was there she heard of the ‘lost medics.’

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Following the complications of Dundee becoming a separate University in its own right in 1967, students had transferred to clinical training in other universities in 1969 and to Dundee in 1970 and had left St Andrews without any academic award to acknowledge their studies there.

In 2003, the university decided to put matters right and awarded a BSc to the doctors it was able to trace. Judith missed out but was encouraged to contact the University to see if this could be remedied for me too. That led to her graduation on her 75th birthday.

She said: “I am very grateful and proud to have been given the opportunity to study at St Andrews for three years, and I am delighted to have my time there and academic achievements formally recognised.”

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