Dr Edith Summerskill (1901-80)

Women and family health
By Virginia Smith

Edith Summerskill was born in 1901 in London. She was the youngest of three children. Her parents were Dr William Summerskill and Edith Wilde. She was educated at Eltham Hill Grammar School, which in 1918 was followed by medical training at King's College and Charing Cross Hospital in London. She qualified in 1924 and was a member of the Royal College of Surgeons and the London Regional Cancer Programme.

It seems that her childhood experiences of accompanying her father on home visits exposed her to the reality of poverty and ill health and galvanised her to study medicine. 

Summerskill married Edward Jeffrey Samuel in 1925. They had met as medical students and went on to form a long-standing (1928-45) joint medical practice in north London. This work revealed the inadequacies of existing social services and reinforced her socialist beliefs.

Many years later she recalled attending her first confinement as a newly qualified doctor. Shocked at the sparse surroundings and the under-nourishment of the mother, whose first child had rickets, she said “In that room that night, I became a socialist.” (Strangers in the House, BBC Radio 4, 10 Nov 1985).

Summerskill was an early member of the Socialist Medical Association. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, alongside other association members such as Esther Rickards, Somerville Hastings, and David Stark Murray, she put forward the case for a socialised health service, and it was she who came up with the idea of organising social events both to raise money and to attract publicity to the organisation.

Such middle-class professionals, and especially women, were relatively rare in the Labour Party at this time, dominated as it was by male trade unionists. In the 1930s she was on the left of the party. As a feminist, Summerskill paid particular attention to women's social and political issues. In the 1930s she was outspoken in her attacks on the prevailing high rate of maternal mortality and urged that the interests of the expectant mother must always be prioritised by the maternity services. She was especially critical of negligent doctors and inadequate provision, pointing out that a significant proportion of deaths in childbirth resulted from preventable, and hence unnecessary, infections.

The 1930s saw the start of a career as an elected representative of the Labour Party which was to culminate in ministerial office and membership of the House of Lords. In 1934 Summerskill, rather unexpectedly, won a by-election to Middlesex County Council and she represented the working-class Green Lanes division of Tottenham until 1941.

The coming of the Second World War further encouraged Summerskill's enthusiasm for social reform and, like many on the left, she urged the social reconstruction of Britain once the conflict was over. In October 1940, at the beginning of the blitz, she told fellow MPs that the wartime organisation of health services, and the impact of the war itself, had greatly and irreversibly changed the provision and perception of health care. The clear implication was that there could be no return to the conditions of the inter-war years and that medical services must be socialized. In 1944 she became a member of Labour's national executive committee, a sign of her rising status, and served on it until 1958; she was party chairman in 1954-5.

After the 1945 general election Summerskill, a great admirer of Clement Attlee, received her first major post as parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Food. This was always going to be a challenging position at a time of rationing and austerity – an aspect of post-war life with which the British people were becoming increasingly disenchanted. Among her campaigns were those to make milk free from tuberculosis, an issue on which she could draw upon her medical knowledge.

In 1950, and a further sign of Attlee's confidence in her, Summerskill became minister of national insurance. She had little time to settle in this post, however, before Labour's defeat at the 1951 general election. From 1951 until 1959 she served on Labour's shadow cabinet. In the late 1940s and 1950s she implacably opposed Aneurin Bevan and his supporters. While claiming that she personally liked Bevan – he had been a visitor to her home in the 1930s – and that he had been manipulated by his followers, she was none the less prepared to denounce him both within the Labour Party and publicly. She was one of the most vigorous advocates of his expulsion from the Parliamentary Labour Party in the mid-1950s. During the election campaign in 1951 Summerskill told an election rally that Bevan was not the architect of the National Health Service, only its midwife, and that credit for the service should be given to those, such as herself, who had campaigned for socialised medicine since the 1930s.

In February 1961 Summerskill was made a life peeress, but this was far from signalling the end of her active political life. Despite her reputation as being on the right of the Labour Party in the post-war era, she was publicly and forcefully sceptical about nuclear weapons and about the American intervention in Vietnam. She also campaigned during the 1960s for a reform of the law relating to homosexuality and for the legalisation of abortion.

Edith Summerskill was throughout her adult life a committed feminist and member of the Labour Party. Summerskill's career, which embraced both politics and medicine as well as motherhood, must also be seen in the context of her social background. She was a product of the professional middle class and retained many of its attitudes and concerns. Edith Summerskill died at her home in London in 1980.

Source: Dictionary of National Biography

A party political broadcast on the advantages of the NHS

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