People's History of the NHS

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First Memories of the NHS

by Roberta Bivins

To launch our new People’s History of the NHS website, we asked you to send us your first memories of the NHS. Since the first of February, you have been responding. Thanks to your memories, and your comments on our objects, galleries and the stories that other members have told us, we now know more about childhood vaccinations, the drama of acute care from a child’s perspective, life as an NHS-using mum, and experiencing the death of a loved one in an NHS hospital. You’ve told us about dodging the stigma of NHS specs, loving cottage hospitals, and complaining (or NOT complaining) in the NHS. And you’ve shared your pictures as well as your recollections: we love Giuseppe Giancola’s cheeky grin in the photo above – pretty impressive, given that he was enduring the long slow process of skin transplantation in the 1950s – and gorgeous, ‘born in the NHS’ baby Stanley.

Already, you are showing us areas we need to understand better and to explore in greater detail, like the school medical service, where two of you received vaccinations against tuberculosis. Your memories of BCG vaccination tell us a lot about how medicine has changed (we certainly wouldn’t vaccinate a class full of children with one rapidly blunting needle any more!), and of ways in which it has remained the same: schools are still a place where children become ‘visible’ to medicine and public health, and where the NHS and other state agencies can intervene, hoping to improve their lives. And there is so much more we need to learn about how it felt and feels to encounter ideas of health and medicine in that setting: what about those ‘healthy plates’, and ‘five a day’ messages? Do you remember these? Have they changed since you were a kid? How about the return of programmes related to preventing TB, at least in some areas of Britain? Did ‘Nitty Nora’ visit your school? What else do you remember about the health service in schools or as a child?

We’ve also been hearing from people who work or worked in the NHS, and about care – compassionate, complacent, or grudging – in NHS hospitals, GP surgeries, and other sites. Your stories have highlighted the fact that good NHS care is not always medical (how about that GP who called campus on behalf of a panic-stricken student missing a crucial final exam?) and that bad care in the NHS ranges from the merely impersonal to the actively dangerous. And you have also told us that the NHS is important to you in very striking ways – in one case, that the universal availability of medical care free at the point of delivery actually empowers you to be who you want to be.

So: tell us more! We look forward to more of your ‘first memories’, and to reading your comments below and your responses to the objects and galleries in our Museum and the entries in our People’s Encyclopaedia of the NHS. Did you (or your granny) have an NHS hearing aid? Do you remember those posters about healthy teeth? How is the hospital food in your bit of the NHS? Do you (and should people) fundraise for the NHS? Should doctors have a ‘union’? Did you take part in the doctors’ and nurses’ strikes in the 1970s and 80s, or where you a patient affected by them? Or did you, like me, first encounter the NHS as an adult, perhaps recently arrived in the the UK? Most of all: what does the NHS mean to you?

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