SIXTY TWO years ago a baby girl was delivered in the Salvation Army home for destitute mothers in Hackney, London.

The setting was a fluke, because the baby's father was a locum GP working in the area, but that child went on to become the champion of mothers who most need help.

And more than 250 women rose to their feet at Glasgow City Chambers to honour Dr Mary Hepburn when she was announced as the latest winner of the Evening Times Scotswoman Of The Year Award.

The consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist has fought for more than 30 years to improve the outcomes of mums-to-be with drug and alcohol problems, HIV, mental health issues or abusive backgrounds.

She is a medic who simply doesn't do convention.

Having accompanied her GP father around Shetland on his rounds from the age of three months, she went on to deliver her first set of twins as a medical student on a four-month scholarship in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

Mary is the driving force of the Special Needs in Pregnancy Service (SNIPS). It grew out the Glasgow Women's Reproductive Health Service, a service she set up in 1990.

She has fought every step of the way for more funding, more staff and more integration between the different elements of social care provided to socially-excluded women.

Her work is not glamorous. Many of the mothers she helped in the mid-1980s are dead. Many of their babies have become her patients.

"I'm now sadly looking after the women that I delivered, which is a bit scary, because generations are much shorter," she says.

Becoming the 49th inductee to the 'SWOTY' hall of fame was an emotional moment for a doctor who has made it her goal to give every child the best possible start in life, however dire the circumstances of their mothers.

"Winning gives affirmation the work we do here, and that I do with other teams elsewhere, is worthwhile and recognised to be worthwhile," says Mary, who lives in Glasgow's West End.

"It will also help recharge my batteries to carry on chasing our ideals.

"I was privileged to grow up in Shetland in a wonderfully-inclusive society and learned at first hand from my father about health inequalities."

Raised in Walls in western Shetland, Mary was one of four children to a GP father and linguist mother.

She recalls being taken out in the boat by her father to do his rounds of nearby islands –- and it wasn't just humans he attended. "He acted as the local vet," says Mary, whose father Thomas died in 1986.

"I remember him delivering cows and stitching up sheepdogs – all sorts of things."

Mary successfully gained a place to study medicine at Edinburgh University at a time when entrance standards for women were higher than men.

"I remember one senior doctor saying equality regulations would be a disaster, we'd have all these women," she recalls.

"He said they would all be going off and having babies and there would be no commitment."

After graduating in 1973, she completed her GP training in Aberdeen, before deciding she wanted to specialise in obstetrics.

Aside from a six-month junior position at Glasgow's Southern General, she learned the specialism working for a year in Dublin, followed by a year in Cork.

Treating women who had more than 15 children was commonplace in a country where abortion was illegal and there was little access to contraception.

Many continued to have pregnancies, even although it put their lives at risk.

Her time in Ireland was a lesson that many women couldn't, or wouldn't, follow prescribed medical advice.

"It's been invaluable to me in working with the women when I came back to Glasgow, because most can't stop smoking, can't stop drinking, can't stop using drugs," says Mary.

"They can't control their environment, they can't leave their abusive partner, they haven't got any better housing.

"It's about looking at the problems in their lives and saying, 'Let's explore what you could do about this and how we can help you'."

In returning to Scotland, Mary had posts at Bellshill, Rottenrow and the Queen Mother's maternity hospitals where she encountered homelessness, domestic abuse, poor diet, smoking and drinking.

In the mid-1980s when drug use became rife, Mary was based at Stobhill and set up a community clinic in Possilpark with a group of midwives.

In the first year, they had just 12 patients, but that number grew to 64 in the second, then to more than 130 in the third.

Mary was accused of taking the "side" of the mothers – and others in the medical profession were less sympathetic about her caring for addicts because this was viewed as their choice.

Yet when HIV exploded among her patients, it led to a post at Glasgow University that allowed her to set up the city-wide Women's Reproductive Health Service, covering six community clinics.

Princess Diana opened its specialist ward at Rottenrow in February 1991.

SNIPS now has three clinics: one at the Princess Royal, one at the Southern General and its community clinic in Possilpark.

The Possilpark clinic was targeted by the American organisation Project Prevention, which offered to pay drug addicts £200 to be sterlised, which was "an appalling approach," according to Mary.

"Over the years, with the widening gap between the rich and the poor, and the huge increase in poverty-related ill-health, our outcomes of pregnancy have got worse, which is really disappointing and a bit paradoxical," she says. "We're seeing sicker women with sicker babies."

MARY was also a finalist for SWOTY in 2003 and since then she has lectured all over the UK and helped to improve reproductive services in Eastern Europe.

She works with the World Health Organisation and UNICEF on teaching medical care for women with HIV and addictions, and with Amnesty International on domestic abuse.

She has visited Moldova, Ukraine, Kosovo, Romania and India to help set up maternity services, particularly on preventing the transfer of HIV from mother to baby.

Since changing to part-time hours last year, she no longer works in the delivery room.

It has proved quite an emotional shift for someone whose delivery tally registers in the thousands.

When it is time to retire, Mary plans to return to her beloved Shetland.

"At the moment, I've no plans to stop this," she says. "It's almost like a hobby when you do it part-time.

"I'm hoping I'll be able to carry on doing the work with Unicef and the World health organisation until I stop being able to help, until it stops keeping giving me a buzz."