On this day in history : 14th June 2005 – The death of Dame Cicely Saunders – nurse, physician, writer and social worker – who was the founder of the modern hospice….

Dame Cicely Saunders – Fair use

Cicely, who was born on the 22nd of June 1918 in Barnet, Hertfordshire, trained as a nurse at the Nightingale School of Nursing, St. Thomas’s, London, during the Second World War…. Then in 1947 she qualified as a medical social worker….

It was in 1945 that she met and fell in love with Polish-Jewish refugee Ela Majer ‘David’ Tasma, who had escaped from the Warsaw ghetto…. Although managing to work as a waiter David was terminally ill with cancer…. Cicely began to wonder how she could help people such as David – who bequeathed to her £500 (around £18K in today’s terms) to help her realise her dream….

In the late 1940s Cicely began to work part time at St. Luke’s Home for the Dying Poor in Bayswater…. She wanted to learn more about the needs of those who could not be cured…. She began to realise there was no better way to help than to become a physician herself – and so, in 1951, at the age of 33, she became a medical student…. It was also around this time that she met Antoni Michniewizc, a Polish patient whom she became close to….

Cicely qualified in 1957 and became the first doctor in modern times to totally devote them-self to those dying…. Once again this was something to touch her personal life as well as her working life – Antoni died in 1960….

In 1963 she became interested in the paintings of Marian Bohusz-Szyszko, a Polish artist and professor, with a degree in art…. They were to meet and became close friends; however, he was married, with a wife back in Poland, who he continued to support….

Cicely began working at St. Joseph’s Hospice, in the East End of London – and started to put her ideas of palliative care and pain management into practice…. She concentrated on the elements of physical, social, spiritual and emotional needs – including the patient’s family and friends into that care…. Her ideas formed the basis of the philosophy of the modern hospice of today….

In 1967 she realised her own dream….when she established St. Christopher’s Hospice – the world’s first purpose-built hospice combining the principles of teaching and clinical research with the pain and symptom relief of the patient’s needs…. St. Christopher’s was different from other hospitals as it was designed and managed as a home from home environment…. Patients were encouraged to participate in therapeutic activities, such as writing, drawing, gardening, talking – or even just simply getting their hair done…. It was the first hospice to put together expert pain and symptom control and pioneered advanced palliative care….

St. Christopher’s Hospice, Sydenham – Image credit : Stephen Craven CC BY-SA 2.0

Cicely made trips to the United States to teach and to liaise with like minded people – such as Florence Ward, founder of the US hospice movement…. In 1980, five years after the death of his wife, Cicely and Marian were married – by now she was 61 and he was 79…. He died in 1995, aged 94, in St. Christopher’s Hospice…. Cicely developed breast cancer but continued to work….she died at the age of 87 in the hospice that she had founded….

Image credit : History of Modern Biomedicine Research Group

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