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National Health Service History

Geoffrey Rivett

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Sir George Godber KCB. 1908 - 2009

Sir George Godber pursued a distinguished career in health planning and education, and was closely involved in the establishment of the National Health Service (NHS). As a child he lost the sight of one eye, as a result of an accident. After training at the London Hospital and the London School of Hygiene, he became a Medical Officer at the Ministry of Health (MoH) in 1939. He felt certain that there would be a National Health Service, and entered public Sir George Godberhealth medicine later beng recruited to the Ministry of Health by Wilson Jameson (then CMO) who had known him at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.  In the early 1940s Godber was part of one of the teams that undertook a national survey of hospitals, his report covering the Sheffield and Midlands area. The concepts he developed, similar to those of the London team supported by his colleague John Pater, influenced his future thinking.  When I was in the Department of Health George advised me to gain experience on the regional side of the Department, the NHS being central to the Department's concerns.  

In 1950 he became Deputy Chief Medical Officer, MoH, and from 1960 to 1973 he was Chief Medical Officer at the MoH's successor departments, the Department of Health and Social Security, the Department of Education and Science, and the Home Office.  Because of office politics, his appointment was by no means certain.  It was not widely known that on two occasions he privately told Ministers that if they persisted with particular policies, which he thought damaging to the service, he would resign while keeping his views to himself.  On both occasions Ministers had second thoughts.

George was always on the look out for young people with talent.  He would identify people with good ideas and ensure that they were placed on committees normally inhabited by very senior people.  You do not get tomorrow's policies, he said, be speaking to yesterday's people. He held evening meetings with the newest recruited doctors in his division to help them to see the broader picture.  "This is not a place" he said, "where you can say 'this is so and I tell you it is so because I am a doctor."  He believed you could achieve anything in the Department as long as you did not insist on claiming credit for it.  He was a quick and often an accurate judge of people, had a personal 'promotion' list, but could take quick decisions if people did not deliver.  He served many Ministers and on one occasion greeted a new arrival by saying something along the lines of "you are the 10th Minister it has been my honour to serve".  He was an early believer in the need to involve doctors in management (the Cogwheel Report), and strove for many years to improve medical manpower planning.

Without his work the NHS would be very different. Godber aimed to put the deficiencies of pre-war health care right, ensuring that specialists were evenly distributed, that general practitioners worked in good premises and that all doctors kept up to date through postgraduate education. His Cogwheel Report was an early attempt to involve doctors more deeply in management, and he worked hard at medical manpower problems to overcome the shortages in some specialties.  His other important initiatives included support for Powell in the policy of closing large mental illness hospitals, putting the contraceptive pill on prescription and public health campaigns, particularly against tobacco smoking (he was instrumental in the initiation of work at the Royal College of Physicians that led to its landmark report.)

I had the privilege of being appointed by George to a post in the Department in 1972, and working for him as secretary to one of his committees (on general practice). George Godber in later years assisted in the correction of the first three chapters of my book, From Cradle to Grave; I kept in regular touch, and was invited to pay tribute to him at his memorial service.

Modesty was George Godber's main feature: he refused to be called "the best chief medical officer the country ever had" or "one of the architects of the National Health Service" Yet to many he is the gold standard by which CMOs are judged.   He was appointed Knight Commander Order of the Bath in 1962, and Knight Grand Cross of the Bath in 1971. He married Norma Hathorne Rainey in 1935.  There were tragedies in his private life and he paid great tribute to the way in which his wife kept things going through times when his civil service work was near overwhelming. He died in his sleep in January 2009

A fine review of the period before, and the first 40 years of, the NHS by Sir George Godber appears in the BMJ for 1988  - a very large pdf file.  .  Sir Douglas Black's obituary in the Guardian.

Geoffrey Rivett's tribute at his memorial service


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