For 50 fabulous years, the Evening Times Scotswoman of the Year awards have celebrated the achievements of women from all walks of life.

The event is one of the country’s most prestigious and best-loved and to mark its half-century, we have teamed up with St Enoch Centre again for our very own glittering, golden jubilee.

We want you to play your part – by nominating the women who make a difference in your community.  From the unsung heroines who run charities and support groups, to sporting superstars and inspirational business leaders, our annual event – affectionately known as SWOTY – champions them all.

As we launch the search for our 50th Scotswoman of the Year, last year’s winner Dr Mary Hepburn tells Ann Fotheringham what winning the prestigious title meant to her.  It has been a busy, challenging, exhausting few months for Dr Mary Hepburn since she was crowned Evening Times Scotswoman of the Year in February.

But that’s nothing new for the woman at the helm of Glasgow’s pioneering Special Needs in Pregnancy Service.  The programme, which supports mums-to-be with drug and alcohol problems, HIV, mental health issues or abusive backgrounds, has had its fair share of detractors over the decades and Mary is used to leapfrogging obstacles and negative attitudes.

The consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist 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 and she remains dedicated to giving every child the best start in life, whatever the circumstances of its mother.

Which is why, she explains, winning Scotswoman of the Year, was a fantastic boost for her and the women she helps.  “It was a lovely affirmation that what we do here matters, that something which has often been viewed so negatively by colleagues and society as a whole, really is valued,” she says. “It has also helped to boost our profile, both locally and with the Scottish Government, and helped to define our position.”

She adds with a smile: “And it was a lovely thing for me, personally, as I near the end of my career. I have had such an outpouring of good wishes from my friends and family, and the women who use the service too. Really, this was a vote for them.  I bumped into a former patient the other day, in fact, someone I’d seen more than 20 years ago, and she had heard about it and congratulated me. That was really lovely.”

Mary grins: “They are even talking about it in Ukraine, where I have spent some time this year helping to set up maternity services.”  Mary grew up in Shetland, the daughter of a GP father and linguist mother, and she studied medicine at Edinburgh University, graduating in 1973.

She completed GP training in Aberdeen and decided to specialise in obstetrics. After working in Ireland for two years she returned to Scotland where she held posts at Bellshill, Rottenrow and the Queen Mother’s maternity hospitals, encountering 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, the forerunner of SNIPS, in 1990.

She is now renowned around the world as a respected authority on maternity services, working closely with the World Health Organisation and UNICEF on teaching medical care for women with HIV and addictions.  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.

In Glasgow, a two-year review of SNIPS has brought fresh challenges for Mary, but she remains dedicated to developing and protecting the service.  “Our aim is to consolidate the revised service, continuing to improve the outcomes for the women who come to us,” she explains.

And as the Evening Times launches its search for her successor, she has some words of advice for the winner.  “The event itself is wonderful, a lovely evening spent in the company of some amazing women who have wonderful stories to tell,” she says. “Enjoy it – and afterwards, make the most of the recognition and boost in profile it can bring for you and the work you do. Use it to your advantage – it is a great honour.”

Tony Carlin, Evening Times editor, said: “Scotswoman of the Year is a highlight on Glasgow’s events calendar, marking the achievements of women from all walks of life. This year it celebrates its 50th anniversary, which is an impressive milestone and testament to its enduring popularity. The 2012 awards dinner promises to be something extra special and I look forward to hearing about the women who have inspired our readers over the last 12 months.”