Sheila McLean

I graduated in 1972 with Honours in Jurisprudence from Glasgow University.  I worked as a Reporter to the Children’s Panel for a few years after graduation, before returning to the University in 1975/6.   One thing my Law Degree taught me was that I didn’t want to practise law, which came as something of a shock given that this had all I had wanted to do ever since I was pretty young!!!  However, the degree did give me a sense of the importance of intellectual rigour and influenced the way in which I address discussion and debate, which has proved to be extremely valuable throughout my career. 

Initially employed in the Forensic Medicine Department at GU, I was asked, after a few months in the job, to develop an Honours programme in what has become known as medical law.  Whether or not this was a career highlight, it was certainly a career challenge.   At that time, there was no such subject being taught in any UK University, so my first task was to identify what topics might be included in such a programme and then to find out about them!!!  As the Honours system in those days allowed students to specialise over two years in their chosen subject, this required me to create 4 distinct courses with no guidance from anyone or anywhere else.  A daunting start to an academic career. 

With the support of Professor Sir Kenneth Calman, then Dean of the Medical Faculty, in 1985 the (now defunct) Institute of Law and Ethics in Medicine was established at GU, with representatives from every Faculty in the University.  I believe that this development helped to establish the importance of medical law as a subject of concern to disciplines wider than merely law or medicine.  Some years later, with the permission of the then Principal of the University, I was also able to establish a multi-disciplinary University Ethics Committee, which initially - informally - was available to any academic seeking research funding.  Such ethical scrutiny is now required by grant giving bodies, and thanks to the extremely hard work of my former colleague, Sarah Elliston, the University’s Ethics Committee was transformed under her regime as chairperson from an optional and probably not very efficient body to one held in high regard and performing an extremely valuable service.

In 1989, The International Bar Association announced its intention to endow a Chair in Medical Law at Glasgow University, and I was fortunate to be appointed in 1990.  When Noreen Burrows and I became Professors on 1 October 1990, we were Scotland’s first ever female Professors in law.  Over the years, career highlights include being elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and a number of Medical Royal Colleges, as well as being awarded Honorary Degrees from the Universities of Edinburgh and Abertay, Dundee.  

Perhaps because there were still only a relatively small number of people working in this field at senior level, outside of the University I was appointed to a number of national and international committees, amongst them as legal adviser to Committees of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, as well as being Vice-Chairperson of UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee.   I was founding Chairperson of the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission.  I was also able to make a small contribution to law reform.  My report on the Diane Blood case (the case of a woman who wished to have children using her dead husband’s semen) resulted in the passing of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Deceased Fathers) Act 2003.  The recommendations of the Independent Review Group on Retention of Organs at Post Mortem (which I chaired) resulted in the relevant sections of the Human Tissue (Scotland) Act 2006.

Particularly as a young female member of staff, and especially given that I was teaching a previously unheard-of subject, it was made very clear to me on occasion that neither I nor my subject should be taken seriously.  Some colleagues believed – and said loudly - that medical law was not a ‘real ’subject, or was one likely to be of interest only to female students.   Given that virtually every UK Law School (and those in other countries) now teaches this subject, I guess they were wrong! Given the fact that my subject straddled law and medicine, initially I was regarded with suspicion by both disciplines.  The lawyers didn’t rate the subject and the medics seemed to think that my main aim in life was to teach aspiring lawyers how to sue them!  Fortunately, that changed over the years, most notably in that the two taught postgraduate degrees that we offered were primarily taken by doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals.

In these far off days, sexism was both casual and pervasive.  I believe that over my career, significant, but by no means definitive, progress has been made in that respect.  For example, I recall one Faculty meeting many years ago when it was announced – to considerable shock – that more than 50% of undergraduates were female!    Thankfully, nowadays this is an accepted fact of life, whereas when I became a student, probably only about 10% of law students were female. 

Women play an important role in the legal, as in other, professions and should, ideally, be treated with respect for the gifts they bring.  Men can help to facilitate this by not just acting in a non-discriminatory manner, but more importantly believing it.  Changing behaviour is, of course, important, but changing minds is even more so.  For the future, it is to be hoped that concerns and conversations about sex-based (and other) discrimination will become redundant as self-evidently unnecessary. 


Sheila McLean studied at the University of Glasgow, graduating LLB in 1972. She then worked as an Area Reporter for the Children’s Panel, and in 1975 was appointed Lecturer at the School of Law of the University of Glasgow She was awarded an MLitt in 1978, with a dissertation entitled ‘The role of the reporter in the children's hearing system’, and in 1987 completed her PhD, ‘Information disclosure, consent to medical treatment and the law’. She was appointed Senior Lecturer in 1985, and established the Institute of Law and Ethics in Medicine.

In 1990, McLean was appointed the first International Bar Association Professor of Law and Ethics in Medicine becoming the first of two University of Glasgow Female Law Professors. She has since pursued a distinguished research career. She has published widely, in particular on consent, reproductive and end of life issues. She authored a book concerning the ethical future of applied genetic engineering entitled ‘Modern Dilemma : Choosing Children’, and has spoken out with criticism of the Baby Gender Mentor test.