Dundee professor Ruth Freeman, whose passion was to help make dental care accessible for Scotland’s marginalised people, has died aged 67.
Laid to rest in her wedding dress, typifying her enthusiastic and fun approach to life, Ruth Freeman was diagnosed with a rare cancer and passed away just weeks after her retirement.
An author, academic, dentist, lecturer and public health specialist, she was looking forward to a more relaxed pace of life with husband Gerry Humphris, following a highly successful but demanding career.
“I promised her that we would try and not be too sad, but she really was the most remarkable woman,” said Gerry.
“I feel very privileged to have had her as my wife.”
Educated in Dundee
Ruth Freeman was born in Glasgow on August 10, 1954.
Her parents were mental health social worker Joan Freeman, and world renowned psychiatrist Dr Thomas Freeman – author of Chronic Schizophrenia.
She had two brothers, Richard – now deceased – and Robert, a consultant gynaecologist who lives in Plymouth with his wife, Kath.
The family later moved to Dundee where her dad practiced as a consultant psychiatrist at Royal Dundee Liff Hospital.
Ruth received her primary education from the city’s Demonstration School before going on to the Harris Academy.
“In a funny turn of events when Ruth began work at the Dental School as an adult her office overlooked the very place where she had gone to school as a child,” added Gerry.
With a granny in Belfast and opportunities in Northern Ireland for her parents, the family relocated when Ruth was still in her teens.
She began studying for a bachelor degree in dental surgery at Queen’s University Belfast and lived in Antrim not far from her parents.
Ruth qualified in 1979 then went on to study for her Master of Science in dental public health from University College London.
She then did her PhD where she became interested in preventive dentistry, returning to Queen’s inspired by the work of Neil Swallow who specialised in preventative dentistry for children.
Later she would become the first female professor of Dentistry at Queen’s.
‘Can do’ attitude
Ruth was known as someone with an incredible enthusiasm for life.
Always able to inspire and motivate others, she had an incredible ability not to take no for an answer!
Gerry said: “If she had something she was thinking about or working towards, that really did drive her. She would get it done. It definitely was not ‘blah, blah, blah!’
“But the thing that best sums her up is that she cared about the people behind the policies and practice.
“She wanted to make a difference – and she did.”
This was especially true in term of how much she inspired junior staff and students.
Helping anxious patients
Ruth’s career was both vast and impressive.
She worked at Queen’s University as a lecturer in dental public health where she developed a specific interest in behavioural science in dentistry.
Dental anxiety, children’s oral health and their experiences when visiting the dentist were deeply important to Ruth.
She was also keen to study how and if dentists worked to treat hard-to-reach groups of patients.
Ruth’s early work was influenced by developments in behavioural science but also because of her own growing interest in psychoanalytic theory.
Her motivation was always to make complex theory accessible.
But this interest was not entirely new to Ruth.
Family discussions around the dinner table on this very topic were common place thanks to her acclaimed psychoanalyst father.
She actually became a qualified psychoanalytical psychotherapist herself, and ran a small private practice.
Ruth was also a published author – the most notable book with Penguin being a collection Anna Freud’s readings which she produced with Prof Richard Ekins.
When Gerry met Ruth
“Our love story is a bit like When Harry Met Sally… it certainly wasn’t quick,” Gerry said.
The pair first met in a professional context in 1982 on the steps of Guy’s Hospital Medical School at a dental conference.
They would then bump into each other as the years progressed after the death of Gerry’s first wife.
“It would be a few years before, as the Northern Ireland expression goes, ‘we fell into each other’,” added Gerry.
An Edinburgh date when they were both speaking at a meeting and then a weekend in the capital city on their own when friends had to rush off, forged their love for good.
The only problem was that they were both based in different countries.
Gerry was living and working in Liverpool while Ruth was still in Belfast.
After a time becoming ‘an EasyJet couple’ they found a home in Newport-on-Tay.
Ruth began working in Dundee University’s Dental School and Gerry at the University of St Andrews.
On June 21, 2014 – on the longest day of the year – they got married at their home underneath a blazing sun, surrounded by friends and family.
Dundee and the Highlands
In her move to Dundee to the Dental Health Services Research Unit Ruth started working with the Scottish Government to improve the dental health of marginalised groups.
Her papers focused on the health of homeless people, improving child registrations at dental clinics as well as the oral health of prisoners in Scotland.
Gerry said it became the norm to factor in extra time whenever they would go shopping in Dundee.
“It was absolutely standard practice for Ruth to sit down with someone who appeared to be homeless.
“By means of introduction she would ask them about their teeth and it usually helped quickly form a relationship because they knew she cared about them.
“She’d then take their lunch order and I was deployed to get that while she helped make sure they knew where to get treatment.”
From her Dundee base Ruth also worked as a consultant in dental public health for the Highlands and a board member of the UK Public Health Register.
Regular trips to Inverness took place, as well as online calls to people and places spread across the vast Highland landscape.
Sorely missed but legacy lives on
Ruth will be remembered as both fun and humble.
But while she is already missed as a wife, step-mother, gran, sister and aunt, her professional legacy lives on because of the extensive body of work and theory she developed, and through the number of young dental practitioners she trained and mentored.
She held an emeritus position at the Dundee University and visiting professorships at Central South and Nanjing Universities, China.
Facing her prognosis
Ruth was initially diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2017.
They were told it was a rare type – only affecting one in 7,000 people.
However, such rare occurrences meant there was no set treatment plan.
Surgery and radiation followed and she recovered well.
However, in late spring this year she suffered a collapsed lung which indicated a relapse.
“It was a very rapidly developing situation.
“And while we received the most incredible treatment from the staff at Ninewells, Maggie’s and from the palliative care team later, we had to come to terms with it not looking good.
“Her acceptance of what was happening was way ahead of me.
“She would quote her dear father in saying ‘face the front’ and ‘what can’t be cured must be endured’.
“Her bravery and acceptance was outstanding.”
When it became clear chemotherapy wasn’t helping the couple decided to move to quality of life care, enjoying what time they had left together.
Ruth passed away at home with family beside her.
At the celebration of her life Gerry paid tribute to his wife.
He said: “Excuse me Ruth for feeling sad, at least for a short while as we leave you soon as such a caring, witty, intelligent and inspiring person.
“You gave so much to others including not only your family but also your students, junior staff, patients and all those involved in your projects.
“My precious dearest friend; I love you.
“Goodbye, my dearest Ruth, in the hope that out paths will cross again. You will live forever, in my heart.”