My father and grandfather were both general practitioners in Cambridge, and starch supporters of the NHS. My grandfather, George Roper, practicing first from Regent Street, then from Lensfield Road, died in October 1948. He saw only a few months of the National Health Service, therefore, and had retired from practice, but he was delighted it had come into being. In practice from the early years of the century, and as a Medical Officer for Health, he saw extreme poverty among his patients in the slum parts of Cambridge such as Newtown and Mill Road. He tried to make health more accessible by the simple expedient of ‘losing’ bills when he knew his patient or their family would struggle to pay them. It is reputed that on his death many of these bills were found among his papers, to the amusement of my father, but the fury of other members of the family. He also caused some scandal among his fellow members of the medical profession by joining the Labour Party in the early 1930s, appalled at the conditions in which his patients had to live during the slump.
My father began practice after the war, taking over from my grandfather. He qualified from St Georges, did his house job and then served with the Royal Army Medical Corps in the Sudan. He was a staunch defender of the NHS throughout his life, retiring in the 1980s. His career took in advances such the discovery of the link between smoking and lung cancer (a heavy smoker, he stopped as soon as the evidence was known), organ transplantation, child vaccination programmes, fertility treatments and IVF. He died in 1997; I can guess at what he would have made of the NHS in 2018, and suspect I would share his view, that its founding principles, that it should meet the needs of everyone, that it should be free at the point of use, and that it should be based on clinical need, apply as much today as they did seventy years ago. Politicians have come and gone: the principles endure.