Development & Alumni Relations Office 

Dr Betty Nicholl OBE, MD, FRCPath (died 16 May 2016, aged 88)

Obituary kindly provided by Keith Bailie (son)

Betty Nicholl was born on 03 October 1927, the eldest of three girls Betty, Margaret and Mary, in Bushmills, Co Antrim. Her parents were James and Mary Nicholl who owned and ran Nicholl’s Hotel (now the Distillers Arms) in Bushmills, and the garage near to the hotel.

Educated at Bushmills Public Elementary School, in 1939 Betty gained a scholarship to attend Ballymena Academy where she was a prefect in her final year, 1945. While studying medicine at Queen’s she met and married Bill (Bailie) in 1949, graduating three years later with an MB BCh BAO.

Having decided early in her life to pursue a career in laboratory medicine Dr Nicholl was appointed – by a panel that included Sir John Henry Biggart – to the role of Senior House Officer in Clinical Pathology at the Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH) in Belfast in 1954.

In her formative years she worked as a Research Fellow at the RVH under the direction of Dr Gerald Nelson, Consultant Clinical Pathologist. Dr Nicholl was the first female doctor to be invited by senior medical colleagues to present her pioneering medical research on Some Uses of Radioactive Tracers in Haematology at the second ‘Calvert Lecturer’ in 1959. She was subsequently awarded an MD in December 1960 for her thesis on The Use of Radioactive Tracers in Haematology. Her work was pivotal in the creation of the Radioactive Isotope Laboratory which remains crucial in Haematological diagnosis. 

She was appointed Consultant Clinical Pathologist in late 1967 and, following reorganisation in 1984 to Unit Clinician managing laboratory services at Forster Green and Belvoir Park Hospitals, incorporating the Northern Ireland Radiotherapy Centre. There she enjoyed a distinguished medical career until her retirement in January 1992.

In 1978 Betty became a Fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists and served on a number of professional medical bodies, including as President of the Medical Women’s Federation from 1987 to 1989.

In 1957 she was recruited by a medical colleague Dr George Gregg to join the St John Ambulance Brigade in Northern Ireland. This was to be the start of a distinguished service with St John culminating in her appointment as the first female District Commissioner (1986-1990) and finally, President for Northern Ireland (1993-1996).

In 1987 as District Commissioner she took a lead role in the celebrations of the St John Centenary including at Balmoral Showground in Belfast where Lady Westbury, Superintendent-in-Chief, reviewed the parade.

After retirement, she was President of the St John Fellowship in Northern Ireland. In the Order of St John, Dr Nicholl became Serving Sister in 1963, Officer Sister in 1983, Commander in 1988 and finally Dame of Grace in 1995. She was awarded the OBE in June 1991 for services to St John Ambulance.

Betty took time in her retirement to write and publish her memoirs – Times Remembered. Family and friends were core to her life. She managed to find time to relax through gardening, knitting, travelling and enjoying the Causeway Coast.

Predeceased by her husband Bill, Betty is survived by her three children – daughter Julia and sons Stephen and Keith (all of whom are also Queen’s graduates) and families.


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