My guest on Five Star Insights this month is Professor Emeritus of Neuropsychiatry at University College London, Mary May Robertson. She is a leading pioneer and expert on Tourette’s syndrome and has inspired a generation of specialists in this field internationally.
Mary was born as an eleventh generation South African. She credits her inspiring teacher, Dr FD Pascoe as the main reason she went into psychiatry. As a medic, she got to know Professor Christian Barnard and watched a heart transplant – not many people can say that! A passion for travel she spent a year as a ship’s doctor, first on a transatlantic yacht race and then completing a global circumnavigation under sail in 1976, before beginning her distinguished career. She came to the UK in 1978 aged 30.
She was the first woman to receive a Doctor of Science in Medicine at the University of Cape Town in 2006. Always one to give back, Mary has fully funded a medicine scholarship there and awarded two prizes annually for twelve years. She has been the recipient of numerous awards including three Life Time Achievement Awards.
In advocacy, Mary played a key part in forming the UK Tourette Syndrome Association in 1980 and led the way for the formation of the European Society for the Study of Tourette Syndrome, which has become a thriving organisation.
Mary enjoys opera, poetry, photography and tending to her beloved garden.
Knowing about Mary’s passion for travel and that she had voyaged around the world, I started by asking about her choice of location.
Mary spoke with passion about her love for where she was born, South Africa and said that was her dream holiday location. She had done about 30 DIY safari’s with family and friends but had never seen the Big 5 together in any one safari. She also spoke about landing a dream location, in the Seychelles in 1974 for a three month locum after she had newly qualified as a doctor. She remembers vividly her bedroom facing the Indian Ocean and the wreck of a sailing ship, The Isle of Farqhuar.. Mary said she found ‘pure peace’ at the top of an 85 ft mast during her sailing trip around the world. “It was sensational looking down at the dolphins, porpoises, sea gull waves and the ocean.” She says she can’t talk about location without mentioning London where she has lived for more than forty years. She loves that everything is so close by, the infrastructure and she knows the locals in the shops by name. She says it feels like she is surrounded by a ‘social community.’ London is her home now and this is where she will always be.
Interestingly, Mary’s choice of cuisine is also inspired by her travels.
She chooses Italian. Mary spent three months in Italy staying with a cardiologist and his family early in her career and fell in love with Italy and everything to do with it including the food and language. Surprisingly, her favourite Italian dish is steak and she says “they are very good with fish too.” She says “her friends are such good cooks that I wouldn’t dare cook in front of them, unless supervised.” However, her standard best dishes to make are roast chicken and vegetables. Something she grew up having in South Africa with her family, even at Christmas time. She says she had a simple upbringing, good food made from fresh ingredients “meat and two veg” but rarely dessert. The family ate together when they could and today dinner with friends is often at each other’s houses rather than at large restaurants.
Staying with Mary’s love of all things Italian and she is a huge opera fan.
She was given her first opera book at the age of 10, something she still treasures. When I ask her if opera is for everyone, especially young children, she replies an appreciation for this kind of music depends of parent’s background and musical choices. She had to wait until she came to London in her 30’s to be able to see real live opera. The tenor is her favourite voice and she admits to being a “serial faller in love with tenors” having known three generations of them. They include the greats like Carlo Bergonzi, Placido Domingo and Joseph Calleja. Her favourite operatic sopranos include Jesseye Norman, Joan Sutherland and Ermonela Jaho among others. She says “I am a Verdi lady” but also likes and appreciates other opera like Puccini, Donizetti, Rossini…the list goes on. She likes popular music too and remembers fondly seeing Cliff Richard in concert with her mother in South Africa in the 1960s and Freddy Mercury and Queen at Wembley in the 1980s. As a medical student she sang in a group called The Medeecos where they sang The Seekers songs (from Australia). Years later, she shed tears of joy when she went to the Royal Albert Hall for the Seekers’ final farewell concert.
Given Mary’s academic background she loves the written word and has also had a lot of work published, but I want to know what sort of literature she enjoys reading.
Mary likes “factual work but not novels.” She would recommend Jock of the Bushveld by James Percy Fitzpatrick which she read as a child. She spent some time in Namibia in 2017 and enjoyed reading books about the history and culture of the place. Mary has about 150 autobiographies, many of them signed. Amongst those she favours are Nelson Mandela and Musa Nggungwana. Mary also recently met Dr Helen Sharman, the first British astronaut in space and enjoyed her autobiography “Seize the Moment.” Science has always fascinated her and Mary recently completed a dissertation on perfume and opera, achieving a distinction. She says “there is so much knowledge, history, insight and enjoyment to be gained from reading.”
Our final section brings us to art.
Mary says she likes South African artists and paintings for example Tinus de jonghe, Irma Stern, Barbara Tyrell, Selepe to name a few. However, “if I won the Euro millions I would chose March Chagall’s MOMA painting, I and the Village. It is my all time favourite.” She loves the use of colour and how full of life it is. Her home is decorated with prints, paintings and framed photographs. Mary has a great eye for photography and is an avid photographer, taking many pictures including those of the moon. She is a member of the Astronomer’s club near Regents Park.
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