Obituary: Dame Isabel Graham Bryce
Thursday 19 June 1997
She was born in 1902, the fourth of five children, in Belfast, where her father, James Lorrain Smith, was a professor of pathology. She was only two years old when the family moved - first to Manchester and then to Edinburgh, where her father became Dean of the Medical Faculty. Her father's chairmanship of the English Association meant that his family met many of the writers of the day - Yeats and Masefield for instance - when they came to lecture and to read.
Her mother was much involved in good works; she set the example of community work which her four daughters followed. However, when Isabel went to her first job after graduating MA from Edinburgh University, she followed in the footsteps of her father, who had been on a Home Office committee investigating humidity and ventilation in cotton weaving sheds: her project was to study the effects of humidity in shoe factories in Leicester.
She took a year off to do psychological research in Cambridge under Sir Frederick Bartlett, and in 1928 became a factory inspector - an unusual job for a woman in those days - and went to work first in London then in Manchester. In later years she would recall the lip-reading skills of the cotton spinners and how the inspectors had to be careful of what they said, even in the deafening noise of the factories.
In 1934 she left her work to marry Alexander Graham Bryce, a thoracic surgeon in Manchester. Preparations for war in 1938 saw her in the Women's Voluntary Service and in charge of evacuation schemes. When she herself was evacuated with her two sons to Toronto in 1940 and managed to find work, it was again with the WVS, first in Canada, then in the United States. But soon, through contacts dating from Cambridge days, she was taken on to do scientific research into pilot fatigue in Harvard University.
At the end of the war she returned to Manchester, a member of the National Council of Women and of the Federation of University Women, but also on the board of the Manchester Children's Hospital on which she had served briefly before going to Canada. She led a team investigating the work of nurses at the Children's Hospital, with the result that when the National Association of Hospital Management Committees was formed she was a Manchester representative and later a member of the General Nursing Council. Parallel with this she was a magistrate on the senior and juvenile courts.
A move to Sussex when her husband retired in 1955 meant that commuting to London was easier. Fellow commuters were used as information sources and sounding boards. Through one of them, Lord Beeching, she was later invited to join the board of British Transport Hotels as a non-executive director, a post she held for 16 years; her main preoccupation was the working and living conditions of the staff.
Something different, but not out of character, was her five years with the new Independent Television Authority. Her concern for people and feel for efficiency together with her lively awareness of current affairs led to her working with great enthusiasm with such a group, planning and monitoring programmes and getting the feedback of public reaction.
Concurrently, and having moved in the meantime to Berkshire, she became in 1963 Chairman of the Oxford Regional Hospital Board. The region was a large one, embracing not only Oxfordshire but also Buckinghamshire, west Berkshire, parts of Wiltshire and Gloucestershire and Northamptonshire; it included Grendon Underwood and Stoke Mandeville. Her nine years in the position - three periods of office - were the high point of her career: she used all her abilities, drive and, above all, her efficient handling of committees and government officials (including nine ministers), to make this large region an outstanding one.
During a complete reorganisation of the NHS, she chaired the National Staff Committee co-ordinating personnel changes through to 1975. She held no more official positions after 1978 but continued to be involved in voluntary organisations such as the League of Friends of the Radcliffe Infirmary, the Zonta International Women's Organisation and the Motor Neurone Disease Association.
Isabel Graham Bryce was a tall and stately presence whose searching eyes remained clear and blue, reflecting her keen mind, even as she approached her 95th year.
Veronica Du Feu
Isabel Lorrain Smith, public servant: born Belfast 30 April 1902; Investigator, Industrial Fatigue Research Board 1926-27; HM Inspector of Factories 1928- 34; Centre Organiser, WVS, Manchester 1938-39; Director of Organisation, Ontario Division, Canadian WVS 1941-42; Technical Adviser, American WVS 1942-43; Research Fellow, Fatigue Laboratory, Harvard University 1943- 44; Vice-President, Princess Christian College, Manchester 1953-97; Chairman, Oxford Regional Hospital Board 1963-72; Chairman, National Nursing Staff Committee 1967-75; DBE 1968; Chairman, National Staff Committee 1969-75; director, British Transport Hotels 1962-79, consultant 1979-81; married 1934 Alexander Graham Bryce (died 1968; two sons); died Oxford 29 April 1997.
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