The peaceful cold night of December 29, 1940 was pierced by the sound of air raid sirens as the drone of looming Luftwaffe planes became louder overhead. The following morning would reveal the devastation and insurmountable casualties caused by the firebombs dropped by some 130 German bombers (Mackay, 2002). This is just a snapshot of the impossible pressure events of World War II placed on the medical establishment, especially those healthcare professionals in and around London. These trying times elicited a strong unified response by British physicians as they put aside personal and professional aspirations to work in collaboration for the health of the people.
This sense of camaraderie between medical professionals can best be studied by looking back at British Medical War Committees. The medical officers of health from the different boroughs of London were often very active participants of these committees, and wrote favorably of their experiences as members of these medical war committees. For instance, in his 1941 letter to Mayor Alderman and the councilors of the borough, Maitland Radford of St. Pancras specifically acknowledged the aid received from the medical war committee writing:
I wish again to acknowledge the very great assistance received from the Local Medical War Committee of the British Medical Association through whose co-operation the services of a very large number of medical practitioners of the Borough have been made available in connection with various aspects of A.R.P work.
This type of gratitude is prevalent in many of the medical officers of health reports from 1939 to 1945. It is apparent the aid that the medical war committees provided these public servants was invaluable in their management of the public health crisis caused by the war.
The reports of other medical officers during this time period reveal the extent to which the medical war committees contributed to public health campaigns. H.A. Bulman, the medical officer of health of St. Marylebone, writes in his 1940 report that is through the cooperation of the local medical war committee that “the services of a large number of medical practitioners in the Borough have been made available for various branches of the Councils’ civil defence scheme” and “have been closely connected with the local casualty services since their inception [and] have been unsparing in the help they have given.” This was a common occurrence throughout all of London as physicians left their private practices to contribute to the public health campaign. It is reported that by the end of World War II there were only 3,550 specialists out of over 45,000 doctors in England, meaning that many private practitioners transitioned to general practice and employment by the state in order to improve public healthcare during the war time (Stevens 1966, 99). Medical war committees were clearly valuable assets to healthcare professionals and benefited the greater public.
While all were grateful for the assistance that came with medical war committees during the war, some recognized the tremendous asset this cooperation among providers could have if continued past the end of the war. The City of Westminster medical officer of health, Andrew Shinnie, was one such individual whom realized the great potential that the collaboration of the medical war committees elicited and argued for the continuation of such groups even in times of peace. In his 1941 report Shinnie wrote:
The war has brought far closer co-operation between medical practitioners of Westminster and the health department than could ever have been achieved in peace time. Some of the doctors have been serving at First Aid Posts, some in shelters or other spheres of the public service. This has engendered among them a stronger spirit of comradeship and mutual help which is of inestimable valuable now and will prove still greater value after the war… It may be that this most useful war time expedient might be transformed into a permanent advisory committee of local medical practitioners after the war.
Shinnie saw the undeniable utility of medical practitioners coordinating their efforts, and through his suggestion others begin to recognize the value of these committees. The local medical war committees had lasting implication on local relationships as well as impacting the larger establishment.
The committee that Shinnie advocated for in the City of Westminster continued after the conclusion of the war in Europe. He once again writes about the group in his 1952 report mentioning that “the war and the needs of civil defence drew even closer together the medical practitioners in the City and the Council’s medical staff as all were engaged in a common task… and that committee, though no longer a war committee, meets here even now.” The war and the local medical war committees in London were crucial in shaping the national agenda post-war. Others have argued that the circumstances of the war stimulated the public discussion on healthcare reform, and the experiences of emergency medical services and medical war committees shaped the new national health service (Jefferys 1987, 133).
It is clear that collaboration among healthcare professionals in London was paramount to successfully meet the public health needs caused by the second world war. It is through these medical war committees that physicians and other practitioners were able to coordinate their efforts to respond in the most effective manner. The relationships forged through these difficult times persisted long after the conclusion of the war, and the taxing experiences shared by these individuals provided the insight necessary to make profound changes to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service.
Written by Zachary Moore
Jefferys, Kevin. “British Politics and Social Policy during the Second World War.” The Historical Journal 30, no. 1 (1987): p 123-144.
Mackay, Robert. Half the Battle: Civilian Morale in Britain during the Second World War. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.
Stevens, Rosemary. Medical Practice in Modern England; the Impact of Specialization and State Medicine. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966.