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Posthumous degree honours pioneering Jamaican woman

Published:Monday | September 21, 2015 | 9:00 AMJanelle Oswald
Stephanie McGregor in 1931, in Kingston, Jamaica.
The family at the private ceremony on Graduation Day. From left: George Romanik, Lauren McGregor, Grace Romanik, Aysha McGregor, Anton Phillips, Madison Trout, Carla McGregor, Monica Evans Trout, Orville Trout, Dawn Penso, Kitty Phillips, Rory McGregor, Brenda Laarhoven, Michael Phillips, and Stephanie McGregor.
From Left: Lady MacGregor, Sir Malcolm MacGregor, Chief of Clan Gregor, Monica Evans Trout, Madison Trout, Reverend Markus Dunzkofer, Lauren McGregor, George Romanik, Carla McGregor, Anton Phillips, Kitty Phillips, Stephanie McGregor, Grace Julia Romanik, Michael Phillips, and Rory McGregor at Piershill Cemetery, Edinburgh, Scotland, on July 3.
Lauren McGregor (left) and daughter Grace Romanik at the University of Edinburgh Library, Special Collections, looking at Stephanie'’s records and photos on July 3.
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A Jamaican family has united and travelled to Scotland to receive a posthumous degree celebrating the life of a family member who died almost 80 years ago.

Members of the McGregor clan from Jamaica, UK, and USA travelled to Edinburgh to attend an emotional ceremony held at Edinburgh University to honour the life of Stephanie McGregor.

Marking the historical day, Stephanie's great niece, Lauren McGregor, accepted the degree in July during the special medical graduation ceremony at the Usher Hall, attended by 15 other family members.

Speaking exclusively with The Gleaner about the grand occasion, she said: "I want to thank everyone who helped bring Stephanie's story to light and to life. When I accepted Stephanie's medical degree and hood from Sir Timothy O'Shea, I thought about her. I thought about how Stephanie had earned the medical degree that I held by being a brilliant, tenacious, pioneer and how special it was for the university to agree to honour her academic life in this way. I am so overjoyed."

Visiting Stephanie's grave at Piershill Cemetery, as well as the Centre for Research Collections in the university's main library, family members were shown the former medical student's record, a photograph from her time at university and some related items.

 

HOW IT BEGAN

 

Sharing the moment, McGregor who is from Connecticut, USA, said: "In 2014, I visited Stephanie's Piershill cemetery gravesite for the first time, having discovered the location from the university's files. Her tombstone was time worn, but the words, "Medical Student. Final Year," were clear. Stephanie had died three weeks shy of her medical school graduation. Seeing her tombstone, I decided to ask the university to award Stephanie her medical degree posthumously because it was the right thing to do. The university agreed and made the award at this year's medical school graduation on July 4, which also happened to be 79 years to the day she died."

The proud corporate attorney added, "Returning to Scotland this year with the family for a memorial service at the gravesite with Reverend Dunzkofer, rector of St John's Episcopal Church of Edinburgh, was a poignant moment in time. Rev Dunzkofer spoke about how love never ends. Next to the old tombstone, we laid a new memorial stone, detailing the posthumous award of Stephanie's medical degree and how the McGregor family of Oracabessa, Jamaica had always remembered her. Sir Malcolm MacGregor and Lady McGregor, the Chief of Clan Gregor and his wife were also in attendance. It was a great day."

 

PIONEERING WOMAN

 

Stephanie aspired to become a doctor of medicine. If she had lived out her full life, the ambitious student would have been one of the pioneering women to hold a university medical degree and practice medicine in Jamaica and the first black female graduate of the University of Edinburgh Medical School.

Born in Gayle, St Mary, in 1911, Stephanie was the daughter of plantation owner Peter James McGregor and his wife Julianna Marsh. She began her studies at the University of Edinburgh in 1931 and the advisor of Women Students wrote, she was "one of the best in her class."

Falling ill in January 1936 and released from the Royal Infirmary after 15 days, the young student travelled north to Argyll to convalesce, but this left her weak and bedridden for a week. She died on 4 July, 1936 - at the age of 25 - of rheumatic fever following tonsillitis, which affected her heart.

Senior university figures have hailed Stephanie's achievement during a time when few women were admitted to higher education. Edinburgh University first allowed women to matriculate in the 1890s and only in 1916 did they gain equal status in the Faculty of Medicine.

 

HIGHLY MOTIVATED STUDENT

 

Grant Buttars, the university's deputy archivist, said, "Stephanie showed all the signs of a highly motivated and conscientious student. At the time, Stephanie was studying, numbers of female students were very small compared with men. Although she probably never saw herself as such, Stephanie can be seen as a contributor towards a major change within medical education, paving the way for those who followed."

Expressing his joy and pride for Stephanie, Roy McGregor, a great cousin said: "I first heard about Stephanie's story when I was eight. She was the first of our family to go away to university, so I always felt going to university was part of my path as well. Her life in essence exemplifies that with hard work and ambition anything can be achieved and no profession should be considered off limits to a woman. Stephanie has helped paved a way for all women in medical school."

Lauren McGregor added, "Stephanie's story should remind all people there is always hope, faith, and love. In 1930, Stephanie, then 19 years old, sailed from Kingston, Jamaica, to Plymouth, England, in pursuit of her dream of becoming a medical doctor. She was a pioneering, brave and brilliant young woman, who knew what she wanted for herself and her future. I hope Stephanie's story encourages people to dream big and to be brilliant, brave, and bold in that pursuit."

janelle.oswald@gleanerjm.com