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Obituary: Dr Evelyn Gillan (1959-2015)

Dr Evelyn Gillan, Chief Executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, died on 14 July 2015 in Edinburgh aged 55.

Barbara O’Donnell, Acting Chief Executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, and Caterina Giorgi, Director of Policy and Research at the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education in Australia, reflect on Evelyn’s life, career and significant contribution to the reduction of alcohol harm in Scotland.

Barbara O’Donnell, Acting Chief Executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland

It was with deep sadness and regret that staff at Alcohol Focus Scotland announced the passing of their Chief Executive, Dr Evelyn Gillan.

“Evelyn was an inspirational woman and public health advocate who was hugely respected here in Scotland and by colleagues internationally. Her enthusiasm, leadership, energy and passion to change the world for the better were evident to all who had the privilege to know and work with her. Her sense of humour and her tenacity were legendary! She was one in a million and will be deeply missed by us all.”

Her career began in Edinburgh’s Charlie Miller hair salon and thereafter she spent a couple of years roaming Europe, cutting hair on a beach in Greece, picking grapes in France and working in a Dutch bandage factory. She came back to Edinburgh at the age of 21 and studied social work at Moray House, where she met Tom Proudfoot, who became her life partner. For a time she worked in London but the bright lights were not for her and she returned to Edinburgh, where she undertook several different roles before co-founding Zero Tolerance which she regarded as one of the most important posts of her career. Thereafter Evelyn became Head of Public Affairs for the Royal College of Nursing Scotland.

In 2002, Evelyn took six months off to bake cakes, oversee her youngest son’s transition to primary school and to complete a PhD at Edinburgh University. She then became the first Director of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP). Evelyn worked closely with leading doctors to connect their medical knowledge with her research, advocacy and policy influencing skills. The result was an effective organisation that helped persuade the new Scottish National Party Government to tackle Scotland’s difficult and sometimes deadly relationship with alcohol.

Evelyn moved from SHAAP to become Chief Executive at Alcohol Focus Scotland in 2010, where she worked with partners to persuade the Scottish Government to adopt Minimum Unit Pricing as a way to reduce alcohol harm in Scotland.

Evelyn believed the work at SHAAP and Alcohol Focus Scotland was amongst the most important undertaken in her working life, and she was instrumental in the passing of Scottish legislation to introduce Minimum Unit Pricing.

Shortly before her death Evelyn wrote:

“I can honestly say that dying has taught me more about living than anything else I have experienced in the 55 years that I have been on this earth. Most importantly, dying has reinforced for me what I already knew deep down, that love in all its beautiful, myriad forms, is the sine qua non of life, and therefore, of death.

“The giving and receiving of love is what matters most in life. It is the hardest thing to leave your loved ones, especially your children, but I take my leave of you with hope that we are rediscovering those things that matter most.”

Evelyn is survived by her partner Tom Proudfoot and their sons Max and Jack.

Caterina Giorgi, Director of Policy and Research, FARE, Australia

Three years ago I found myself on a conference program in New Zealand following Dr Evelyn Gillan the Chief Executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland. I had never met Evelyn before, but was certainly familiar with her organisation’s work and of Evelyn’s role in successfully advocating for a minimum price for alcohol in Scotland, which resulted in the policy being proposed and introduced in several other countries.

Successfully advocating for increases in the price of alcohol is no easy task. Firstly, you need to convince a country with a culture of excessive consumption that increasing the price of alcohol will benefit the community. And secondly, you need to ensure that your advocacy is more successful than the lobbying and scaremongering of an alcohol industry who will do anything to stop such a policy from being adopted (because they know, as we do, that pricing policies are an effective measure for reducing alcohol consumption and harms, which hurts their bottom line).

I thought it would be a tough gig following Evelyn at the conference. And it was! Evelyn’s expertise in strategic advocacy were immediately clear.

She spoke of the need to present the evidence and facts, the need to counter the industry’s false claims and scaremongering, and of the need to engage with governments and the community. Her advocacy work was also focused on the most evidence-based alcohol policy reforms, resisting the temptation to take on too many topic areas.

Following Evelyn’s presentation, I immediately realised why she had been so successful.

After that conference Evelyn and I kept in touch, sharing information and ideas about possible international projects and common challenges and themes in our work. She was always very generous with her time and encouraged me to keep working in the sector because of the need she saw for having a younger generation of advocates.

In the brief encounters that I had with Evelyn, I learnt a great deal from her. Evelyn’s legacy is an inspiration to advocates working in alcohol harm reduction across the world. The sector will not be the same without her personality, her expertise and her mentorship.

I feel very lucky to have met Evelyn and to have had the opportunity to learn from her. We will continue to fight the good fight, always remembering the hard work Evelyn undertook.


Barbara O’Donnell

Barbara O'Donnell is the Acting Chief Executive, Alcohol Focus, Scotland, a national charity working to reduce alcohol harm.

Caterina Giorgi

Caterina is the Chief Executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research & Education.

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