A tribute to Ann McPherson

I’ve been asked to say a few words about my friend Ann, who for the last 10 years has also been my close colleague in the Health Experiences Research Group. As many of you know the group raises money to do the research which is published on the websites Healthtalkonline and Youthhealthtalk.

I’ve known Ann for about 20 years, initially through Klim because we worked in the same department here. Ann joined my research project on GPs views of emergency contraception in the mid 90s and a few years later I was very pleased to be invited to join the small planning group (with Andrew Herxheimer, Rachel Miller, Barbara Sackett and Sasha Shepperd ) which had started to meet around Ann’s kitchen table. This was 1999. We had a great time – it was clear that these very clever and delightful people were going to be fun to work with and it also no doubt helped that our meetings were fuelled by Barbara’s regular supply of home made soups and muffins (she always presented these delicious offerings as if we were supporting her kitchen experiments ).

Some of you will know stories from that time and many of you will know that 2 years later we launched the first 2 projects: around 40 people’s experiences of high blood pressure were collected and analysed by a loose, fairly anarchic collective including all the kitchen table group and various friends and well wishers. Prostate cancer was researched by Ali Chapple, funded by Muir Grey through the prostate cancer risk management strategy. We learnt fairly quickly that the single researcher approach- especially if it was the extraordinary Ali Chapple – was a far better way of doing things and made this our model.

To cut a long story short, over the next ten years we raised over 7.5 million in research funding, established a charity to run the websites (now superbly run by CEO Graham Shaw and chair Andrew Stone) a vibrant research group of 20 people in the University department of primary care (then led by David Mant ) and a set of international collaborations with colleagues in Japan, Australia, Netherlands, Korea, Spain, Germany, Canada and Israel who are all at different stages of developing their own national websites to publish qualitative research on health experiences. Many of the international colleagues were at the 10th Birthday party in March 2011 which we were all delighted that Ann was well enough to attend.

This is all a remarkable legacy to Ann and Andrew’s vision and also to the skills and dedication of the research group – of whom Ann was very, very proud. Ann was sometimes embarrassed when journalists and plenary chairs presented the work as if it was Ann’s alone – she was herself always very keen to share the credit for the team work. But we all know that without Ann’s phenomenal energy and sheer persistence we would never have got this project off the ground nor come this far – and some of us would probably still have been publishing in the annals of improbable research (true; and I have published in it) rather than on a website that receives 6- 8 million hits a month.

I’m not sure how normal it is for bereaved work colleagues to be inundated with sympathetic emails but we have received dozens of tributes from all over the world. Some are from people who only met Ann once or twice yet what has struck me is that even a brief meeting often left people impressed , inspired and (it seems to me) with a strong sense of what made Ann so special. So Ann was a very impressive woman but also – and maybe this is less usual amongst high achieving people – capable of being very kind, funny and approachable. She was terrific at remembering faces. And birthdays. And celebrating our achievements. And providing the kind of support when anyone’s personal life, or health, got a bit rocky that encourages life long loyalty in return. Just look around you for the evidence.

What Ann was NOT good at was keeping track of things. Our research group got together last week to remember Ann and, in a very fond and funny as well as tearful session, we concluded that a fitting Ann memorial would be a table top exhibition of all the items we have known Ann to lose (and sometimes misappropriate). Laptops, wallets, bags, endless clumps of keys, bike lights, bikes, jackets, scarves, absolutely any bit of paper that disappeared into her bag, even a single black Camper shoe I once picked up a call from Ann when I was at Paddington Station and she was on a train, just pulled out of Reading (on her way to some important meeting). She was calling me because some horrid man (no doubt within earshot) had stepped on her heel when pushing to get on the train and caused one of her shoes to fall off onto the track. Knowing that I had the same Camper shoes she was ringing me on the off chance that I knew where she could get some near Paddington. She was delighted by the good luck that I was at the station and able to pop into Accessorise to find some substitute shoes – with which I met a hopping and hilarious Ann on the train platform.

Apart from the Exhibition Table as another tribute our research group has decided to name our post grad qualitative research fellowships after Ann. The first McPherson fellow – a recent graduate in social or health sciences – will be appointed this summer.

Ann’s extraordinary, sometimes exhausting, energy meant that no sooner had one project started than she was looking around for the next – with Healthtalkonline and Youthhealthtalk underway and the research group well established she turned her vision to a proposal for a Health Experiences Institute (HEXI) now under development as a joint initiative between Green Templeton college and the University dept of primary health care sciences. Ann was a very well loved and respected member of GTC – many of whom are here – and was very pleased to have support from her own college for the Institute. Fund raising for the Institute is certainly not going to stop now that Ann is no longer with us.

Ann was the closest colleague I have ever had: until she became ill we spoke at least once every day and discussed every major decision in the research group. I cannot tell you how much I will miss her. I do know that the team and its many supporters around the world are determined to continue the work. I also think we should honour her memory by recognising as Ann did that ‘we can only do what we can do’ and making sure that we continue to enjoy ourselves, our friends and families as well as our work.

This is the text version of a tribute made by Sue Ziebland at the memorial service for Ann McPherson on 10th June 2011