Thomson [née Hunter], Margaret Henderson
- Sybil Oldfield
Thomson [née Hunter], Margaret Henderson (1902–1982), physician and prisoner of war, was born on 20 August 1902 at 30 Lomond Road, Trinity, Leith, Scotland, one of the six children and the third of the four daughters of George Alexander Hunter (1861–1939), a bank secretary and solicitor of Edinburgh, and his wife, Margaret Hutchison, née Robertson (1864–1931). She was educated, like her sisters, at Edinburgh Ladies' College and at Edinburgh University, where she qualified MB ChB in 1926. Her younger sister also qualified in medicine.
On 8 June 1929, after practising in Lanarkshire, Margaret Hunter married Daniel Stewart Thomson (1899/1900–1971), son of Alexander Thomson, a rubber planter, and his wife, Christina, with whom she then went to Carey Island, Malaya. They later moved to the place of her husband's work with the Rubber Research Institute (RRI) experimental station—a rubber plantation—at Sungi Bulo, near Kuala Lumpur, while Margaret was attached to the Malaya medical service, organizing first aid classes and lectures on medicine when war broke out.
After the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in February 1942 Thomson left on the last ship to escape, the SS Kuala, where she tended the injured and kept up morale among the mothers and children. The ship was then systematically dive-bombed and machine-gunned until it was pounded to pieces. Survivors took to the lifeboats though Thomson swam for several hours and floated on a mattress near the wreckage before she was picked up by one. She had been wounded in the upper thigh during the attack on the docks on 13 February, and, though the wound had been stitched on board the Kuala, it had reopened and was bleeding. She said that there were others among the thirty-nine in the lifeboat who needed attention more urgently and she insisted on helping to pull the front oar as they rowed for hours, narrowly missing a rocky reef, but being taken by the current further and further from land. 'The sun was very hot, and there was little room in the boat to move, and the bilge was full of a mixture of blood and salt water which the women were trying to bale with their shoes' (Brooke, 38). They managed to land on Kebat Island, after four enemy fighters had actually held their fire. Thomson immediately took charge of the wounded: 'We had no dressings of any kind and the only lotion was salt water. Splints were cut from driftwood with [a] sheath knife under her directions, and all wounds … cleaned in the sea' (Brooke, 39). The little party of survivors was moved by Dutch rescuers to Senajang Island where they joined more sick and wounded. Thomson took charge of over fifty cases and even performed emergency operations with the crudest of instruments. Knowing that on neighbouring Sinkep Island there was a hospital, she helped to organize a shuttle service of small boats to evacuate the injured. One of these boats was the cargo steamer Tanjong Penang with 300 women and child refugees plus sick and wounded aboard: 'The lady doctor had her work cut out' (Dame Margot Turner, quoted in Smyth, 81). Thomson's own wound having by now turned septic, she was taken to Sinkep by stretcher, recovering in time to make the sea voyage to Sumatra and begin the long land trek, still trying to help and encourage the women survivors before the advancing Japanese. She was captured and imprisoned for the rest of the war, first in Djambi gaol, where she was very badly treated (Smyth, 172), and later in the same Sumatran jungle prisoner-of-war camp as Dame Margot Turner. Thomson was one of the camp doctors, having to watch her patients die because the Red Cross supplies of bandages, quinine, vitamin tablets, powdered milk, and mosquito nets had all been hoarded by the Japanese guards instead of being distributed to the prison hospital. She was later consulted by the BBC for their series Tenko, but she herself could not bear to watch that re-enactment of the women's suffering; she would talk about the camp in after years only with former fellow prisoners. In August 1943, when it was not known whether Thomson was free or captured or indeed alive at all, the London Gazette announced that she had been appointed MBE 'for her resolution and disregard of self, her sacrifice and admirable courage' (Daily Herald).
Having survived the prisoner-of-war camps, though greatly emaciated, both Thomson and her husband (who had been a slave worker on the Burma Railway) returned to Edinburgh in 1945 to recover. They then returned to the RRI experimental rubber station in Kuala Lumpur for a five-year tour of duty which coincided with and was cut short by the 'emergency'. The Thomsons' bungalow was never attacked by the communist insurgents, probably because Margaret conducted a health clinic for the estate workers, but they had to live within a barbed wire compound and Margaret slept with a handgun under her pillow. She was not happy about the attitude of some of the colonial service wives towards the Malays and Chinese, and she and her husband left Malaya permanently around 1950.
In 1952 the Thomsons bought Little Daugh, a 600 acre mixed farm in Ruthven, Huntly, Aberdeenshire. They spent the rest of their working lives there as innovative farmers. Margaret Thomson died of bronchopneumonia in Jubilee Hospital, Huntly, on 16 June 1982, and was privately cremated in Huntly. Her husband had died in 1971. There were no children.
- Daily Herald (3 July 1943)
- G. Brooke, Singapore's Dunkirk (1989)
- J. Smyth, The will to live: the story of Dame Margot Turner (1970)
- private information (2004) [family]
- b. cert.
- d. cert.
- photograph, 1960, priv. coll.