Obituary

14th November 2008 at 00:00

Dorothy Smith, a former art teacher in Glasgow, has died aged 85.

There can be few instances of a person lying in bed, totally paralysed with a life-threatening condition, who, on being told by her surgeons that she will never walk again, retorts: "Yes, I shall," and astounds them by continuing to live a full and productive life for many years. Such spirit, determination and resolve were characteristic of Dorothy Campbell Smith who died in August.

She was born in Partick in 1923 and educated at Hyndland Secondary, where she excelled at art. She entered Glasgow School of Art in 1940, changing from painting to study design, specialising in embroidery and weaving. On completion of the course in 1944, she was awarded the Fra Newbery Medal for distinction in diploma work, the top award for the year. This in itself was a rare achievement, as the medal was usually won by a student from the more fashionable fine art department. After teacher training at Jordanhill, she taught at Whitehill School from 1945 to 1949, and lectured in embroidery evening classes at GSA. It was while at St Rollox School in 1950 that an event occurred which was to transform her life.

A cut on a finger while clearing out the art room cupboards caused a fever, the severity of which was not recognised by her GP. Infection had given rise to an epidural abcess which caused total paralysis. This was the start of more than two years as a patient, mainly in the neurological surgery unit at Killearn Hospital. She told her surgeons that if they could restore function to the thumb and index finger of her right hand, she could still use a needle. This they managed to achieve in both hands, by several ground-breaking tendon transfers and plastic surgery operations; her other fingers remained clawed. Other operations and her fortitude enabled Dorothy eventually to regain mobility.

After her recovery, another battle commenced - against the bureaucracy of the education department, to convince them that she was physically fit enough to resume teaching. This was achieved in 1956, when she was appointed to Hamilton Crescent School, followed by Hyndland Secondary until she retired. Her innovative methods and her enthusiasm stimulated countless pupils who otherwise would have had little interest in anything to do with art.

On a holiday to China, a hiccup in her itinerary caused her to land in Tehran at the height of the revolution against the Shah. Not having the correct papers, she was surrounded by armed guards and accused of being a spy; eventually released, one wonders who was more scared of whom. She was an active member of Kelvinside Community Council, where her healthy disrespect of authoritarianism benefited the local residents.

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