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Canada Margaret Becklake, 96, fought apartheid fiercely before becoming an award-winning epidemiologist in Quebec

Dr. Margaret Becklake. (File Photo).

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As apartheid dawned in 1950s South Africa, Margaret Becklake would go with her husband to the townships in Johannesburg to drive black residents into the city because they had so far to travel to get to their jobs. At the time a junior lecturer in the department of medicine at her alma mater, the University of the Witwatersrand, she knew it was the right thing to do despite the possibility that white police officers could stop and charge them because of the mere presence of black passengers in the car.

But that was who Dr. Becklake was, recalled her husband, Maurice McGregor, a former dean of medicine at McGill University who is now a professor emeritus. She lived by her moral compass – a fierce, earnest challenger of political and medical dogmas who knew what was right, what was wrong and just what she could do to fix it.

“If you asked her why she was doing something, she’d tell you it was the right thing, period,” Dr. McGregor said.

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Sarcasm and gossip were anathema to Dr. Becklake, and she abhorred racism most of all. After growing up in a country where there were no barriers to her, as a woman, in her pursuit of multiple degrees and a career in medicine and academia (no less than one third of her 1951 medical school class was female), witnessing the stark, violent, black and white of apartheid became intolerable. As Dr. McGregor explained, if you didn’t support it, you either stayed to fight and risked going to prison, or you left.

When her husband was offered a post at McGill University, the couple and their two young children picked up stakes in 1957 to build a new life in Montreal. Once ensconced in their new home in the town of Mount Royal, chosen because of the reputation of its public schools, “Margot,” for so everyone called her, soon discovered that most women were homemakers and helpmeets, and she was expected to be at home every day to feed lunch to her two children.

“Kids in public schools in Montreal at the time were not allowed to stick around over lunch hour,” her daughter, Margaret McGregor, said. “She managed to find two private schools, one for boys and one for girls, willing to take children for a full day and provide lunch. The downside was that she had to drive us there and pick us up, no easy feat when she was working or there was snow. There’d never been snow in South Africa.”

Dr. Becklake, who died in Montreal of causes related to Alzheimer’s disease on Oct. 17, rose to the challenge, expertly combining roles as a professor of epidemiology and clinician, as a researcher who specialized in respiratory lung function and as a parent who chauffeured her children and cooked most of the family meals. Throughout, she remained poised and striking, a woman confident of her place in the world.

“After the Alzheimer’s diagnosis, we would often ride on public transit and people would come and tap me on the shoulder,” Dr. McGregor recalled. “Unprompted, they would tell me, ‘Your wife is beautiful.’ And she was, inside and out, to the end.”

She was 96 years old.

Margaret Rigsby Becklake was born on May 27, 1922, in London, the elder of Thomas and May Becklake’s two daughters. Her father was already living in South Africa, having decamped just before her birth to become director of the country’s mint. Soon, the new mother and baby joined him.

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Hers was a childhood filled with purple-blooming jacaranda trees and books. A star student, she was head girl at the Pretoria Girls’ High School, and later attended the University of the Witwatersrand with help from her proud father.

Although Dr. McGregor was only a couple of years ahead of her in medical school at Witwatersrand, they would not meet until the end of the Second World War, when he returned home after serving with British and American forces. His father had sent his friend, Thomas Becklake, to the airport to pick up the returning soldier.

“[Mr. Becklake] had his daughter in tow,” Dr. McGregor said. “Two years later, we were married.”

Soon, the couple were living and doing postgraduate work in London, where Dr. Becklake specialized in respiratory physiology, carving out a place in a new, exciting field.

“There was no such thing as lung function testing in those days,” the husband said. “At that particular point in time, we were turning knowledge of animal physiology into clinical tests that could be used for lung disease. Margot was at the crest of that information explosion.”

Upon the couple’s return to South Africa, in addition to lecturing at the university in Johannesburg, Dr. Becklake worked at the Pneumoconiosis Bureau in Johannesburg, where she had access to a database that contained the annual clinical reports and chest X-ray examinations of almost half a million gold and other hard-rock miners. At the time, the region was home to some of the biggest gold mines in the world and those miners whose X-rays showed the shadow of silicosis on their lungs received compensation, even if they were feeling fine and able to work.

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But miners told her different. In a wide-ranging interview about her career, published in March, 2004, in the journal Epidemiology, Dr. Becklake recalled them saying the X-rays could not tell the whole story because there were too many miners who didn’t have shadows on their lungs, but were disabled and unable to work regardless.

So, she followed the advice of a former professor, namely, to “address questions garnered from listening to what patients, workers, their relatives or our colleagues tell us, and which do not fit current clinical dogma.” In doing so, she proved that chronic exposure to gold dust could lead to what is now known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, a life-threatening condition that does not show itself through shadows on the lungs.

Her ground-breaking work resulted in both knowledge and justice, for a lot of miners received benefits they had previously been denied.

In Quebec, although McGill had initially hired her husband, the university made good on its promise to find something for her, too. At first, she was a clinical fellow at Royal Victoria Hospital, but the appointments soon came fast and furious, including an assistant professorship in experimental medicine and a full professorship in the department of epidemiology and biostatistics.

Dr. Becklake also dove right back into studies of lung function in both healthy and ill human beings; in the early 1970s, Corbett McDonald, the head of what was then called the department of epidemiology and health, asked her to set up a lung function laboratory in Asbestos, Que., that would help support his research into the effects of exposure to chrysotile asbestos among miners and millers in the province.

“The impetus for this study had come from the International Commission on Occupational Health, which had identified several important questions,” she told Epidemiology. “One was whether there were differences in the health effects of exposure to the different types of asbestos fibres. In Quebec, there was a group of miners and millers exposed primarily to chrysotile fibres, about which there was little published data.”

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For a few years, she commuted for a week or two at a time, working with a couple of technicians, testing miners and millers when their lungs were at rest and when they were active. Her work helped to change lives and our understanding of exactly what happens to our bodies when exposed to foreign substances.

Over the course of her long career, Dr. Becklake received numerous awards and citations, including being named to the Order of Canada in 2007 and to the Ordre national du Québec in 2011. Most recently, on Oct. 18, the Montreal Chest Institute Foundation announced the launch of the Dr. Margaret Becklake Fellowship, which will pay the salary of at least one trainee in respiratory research each year; recipients are to be chosen from low- and middle-income countries and from Canadian indigenous communities.

Along with her husband and daughter, Dr. Becklake leaves her son, James, her children’s spouses, five grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.

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