Obituary: Marjorie Ritchie, scientist, 66

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A scientist who played a key role in the cloning of Dolly the Sheep has died aged 66.

Born in Edinburgh in March 1948, the daughter of Helen and James Fordyce, Marjorie Ritchie grew up with two brothers and attended Corstorphine Primary and Granville School for Girls before completing her education at Forrester High.

She had always had a love of animals but her interest in animal science may well have been fuelled in her childhood through a relation who worked in sheep husbandry.

After leaving school and having seen an advert for a job at the Animal Breeding Research Organisation (ABRO) in Midlothian – which later became the Roslin Institute – she joined in 1966 at the age of 18.

In 1988 she married Bill Ritchie, a Roslin scientist and member of the Dolly team which made the historic cloning breakthrough with the birth of the normal and vigorous lamb after hundreds of failed attempts.

They achieved what had been believed to be absolutely impossible. Marjorie’s role involved selecting the animals, planning and setting up experiments and providing the surgical skills to transfer the developing embryos into the surrogate recipient.

Dolly was eventually born in 1996 to a black-faced ewe and when the news finally leaked out Marjorie admitted it was “overwhelming”.

The discovery inevitably sparked some controversy and a debate about the potential for human cloning and she recalled: “In some respects I got a bit angry at some of the reaction. It was all to benefit medicine in the long-term. Human cloning was not anything that had been mentioned.”

She also admitted that she had become very fond of Dolly, who went on to have her own offspring. Marjorie once said: “She was very tame and that was partly the attraction. She did not regard man as the enemy and would actually respond to her name – that’s not normal sheep behaviour.”

However, she did reveal that Dolly, who became overweight and had to be put on a diet, had been likened to a coffee table with four legs.

Over her years at Roslin, Marjorie developed a wide variety of scientific and practical skills and, in addition to her role in scientific research, she acted as a mentor for scores of young scientists and technicians.

Sir Ian Wilmut, who led the Dolly team, credits her extraordinary expertise as a vital factor in the project’s success. Her role is also commemorated in a portrait held in the collections of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Her love of animals was the major driving force behind almost half a century she spent working at the Roslin Institute.

Latterly she was dismayed when her physical involvement with the animals was curtailed after she developed multiple sclerosis.

Following her death last month, the flags of Edinburgh University were flown at half-mast.