Professor Sir Alexander Turnbull

1925 – 1990

A native Aberdonian, Alexander Cuthbert Turnbull was educated at Robert Gordon’s College, Merchant Taylors’ School in Liverpool, and Aberdeen Grammar, where he was awarded the Dux in 1942. He read medicine at the University of Aberdeen and graduated in the class of 1947. He spent the following year in India completing his national service. Turnbull’s general medical and specialist training took place in the Granite City. In 1951, he was awarded a Medical Research Council scholarship.

In 1953, Turnbull married Elizabeth Paterson Nicol, a fellow doctor with whom he collaborated on some of his early research work. Turnbull was mentored by Dugald Baird, who appointed him as a lecturer at the University of Aberdeen in 1955. In 1957, Turnbull became senior lecturer at the University of Dundee and an honorary consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist to the Dundee teaching hospitals, only to return to a similar position in Aberdeen in 1961. He graduated MD (1966) from the University of Aberdeen and gained the Thursfield award for being the top student.

In 1966, Turnbull was promoted to the chair of obstetrics and gynaecology in the Welsh National School of Medicine in Cardiff and in 1973, was invited to become Nuffield Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in the University of Oxford, to work at the new John Radcliffe Maternity Hospital. He received a fellowship from Oriel College, Oxford, later that year.

Early in his career, Turnbull developed a scientific and clinical interest in the physiology and pathology of labour. During his time as senior lecturer in Aberdeen, he formed a highly productive professional association with Anne Anderson, which lasted until she died in 1983. In this synergistic scientific collaboration, it was frequently she who translated his exciting and novel ideas into successful projects. Basic observations on the mechanisms of labour were matched by important clinical studies on premature labour, and safer pharmacological interventions to induce and stimulate labour. Turnbull featured in a BBC Horizon documentary about the induction of labour. From 1973–84, Turnbull played a major role in the influential triennial Confidential Enquiry into Maternal Mortality. He was a prolific author of original scientific papers and books.

Turnbull influenced a generation of young doctors and scientists, many of whom later held eminent positions at home and abroad. In 1954, he became a member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, was promoted to fellow in 1966, and was vice-president from 1983–86. In 1981, he was awarded the Semmelweiss medal of the Hungarian Society for Gynaecology. In 1990, not long before his death, he received the Sir Eardley Holland medal of the Royal College and the rarely conferred honorary fellowship, in recognition of his outstanding lifelong contribution to obstetrics and gynaecology.

Turnbull received a CBE in 1982 and was knighted 6 years later. He was awarded an honorary DSc from the University of Leicester in 1989.

Biography prepared from the nomination made to the University of Aberdeen 525 Alumni project.