Pioneer of donor register kills herself alone and in pain

Disease respects neither age nor goodness. It robbed Shirley Nolan of her son, Anthony, when he was seven years old, and it reduced her in turn to a physical wreck, so debilitated that she sought oblivion in death.

Mrs Nolan, 60, who was born in Britain and set up the world's first bone-marrow registry in a vain attempt to save Anthony's life, committed suicide at her home in the Australian city of Adelaide on Sunday, alone and racked by pain.

News of her solitary death provoked anger from voluntary euthanasia campaigners.

Having devoted much of her life to a cause that prevented countless premature deaths, Mrs Nolan spent her final months desperate to kill herself before Parkinson's disease rendered her incapable of that act. This was a sad irony that she acknowledged in a letter written the day she died. "Here today, my last day, I am an advocate of death," she wrote. "I hope today I can end the horror my life has become."

A passionate advocate of voluntary euthanasia, Mrs Nolan took an overdose after arranging her own funeral. Originally from Yorkshire, she achieved international fame in the Seventies for her tireless efforts to find a bone-marrow donor for Anthony. He suffered from Wiscott-Aldrich syndrome, which cripples the immune system, and spent his short life confined to a scrupulously germ-free environment.

A transplant could have saved him, but he had no siblings, so in 1974 Mrs Nolan set up the Anthony Nolan Bone Marrow Trust, a national database of donors which started at St Mary Abbots Hospital in west London.

Anthony died in 1979 before a suitable donor could be found. His mother worked to develop the register, which now contains more than 320,000 names. The project inspired 50 similar registers worldwide, with about seven million potential donors.

Mrs Nolan, who was living in Australia when Anthony was diagnosed, took him to Britain in a quest for superior health care. After his death, she returned to Adelaide, where she was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1981.

As her condition slowly degenerated, her focus turned to ending her own life. Courageous and dignified to the end, she wanted her death to advance the cause of voluntary euthanasia. She vowed publicly to commit suicide while she still could and, last December, took an overdose but was resuscitated by ambulance staff.

She died alone, thanks to laws that prohibit people from assisting a suicide. Frances Coombe, president of the South Australian Voluntary Euthanasia Society, said: "We are outraged that anyone should have to die as Shirley did – alone and terrified that she would not succeed."

She was not terminally ill, but her suffering was intolerable. In one letter passed to the society, she wrote: "At times, I cannot even move, speak or breathe ... It is a life without quality. It is a living hell."