Sir George Godber- pioneer who marched the NHS forward

It has been the misfortune of every chief medical officer for the past 30 years to have had to follow in the footsteps of Sir George Godber who has died at the age of 100. With his death has gone one of the last living links to the foundation of the National Health Service.

A monocled, barrel-chested, buccaneer of a man, he was the son of a successful market gardener in Bedfordshire who put all seven of his children through university long before the days of state-funded higher education.

Godber qualified as a doctor at the London Hospital and New College, Oxford, in 1933. For much of his early career he worked amid the poverty of London’s East End.

That experience shaped him just as it had shaped Sir William Beveridge and Labour prime minister Clement Attlee, the architects of the welfare state. Godber saw the way poverty created ill-health and the indignity that both doctors and patients faced.

In 1939 he joined the Ministry of Health and in 1942 was charged with helping prepare a “Doomsday Book” on the state of British hospitals. He saw the appalling physical state of the hospital stock.

Nye Bevan’s arrival as Minister of Health in 1945 was in many ways Godber’s moment also. By then he was personal assistant to Sir Wilson Jameson, the chief medical officer, and was intimately involved in the negotiations that led up to the founding of the NHS in 1948. Like many in the department he was entranced by the silky way Bevan handled power.

He helped organise the scheme to get hospital specialists spread around the country and by 1950 was deputy chief medical officer. In that role, and as chief medical officer for a mighty 13 years from 1960 to 1973, he was the last CMO with the sheer stature to tell both the medical profession and ministers when they were wrong.

During fraught negotiations over a new GPs’ contract in the mid-1960s that could have seen them quit the NHS, it was late night phone calls between Godber and the then BMA secretary, Dr Derek Stevenson, that helped keep the show on the road.

Godber became CMO just as Enoch Powell arrived as minister for health and Sir Bruce Fraser became the department’s permanent secretary – a triumvirate that between them shook the NHS out of its postwar -torpor.

Powell, who described Godber as the minister’s “bodyguard and lightning conductor”, told the story of a scandal breaking in the papers over an incompetent surgeon and asking what he, as minister of health, could do about it. “Leave it to me, minister,” Godber said before returning a week later to assure Powell that the man “will never operate again”. (Fat chance of that happening again under labour’s politically correct nanny state nowadays.)

He saw the NHS not as an achievement but as a permanent march forward, although by 1972 in his final report as chief medical officer, he felt confident enough to declare that “in time of need for myself or my family I would rather take my chance at random in the British National Health Service than in any other service I know”.

Way into his eighties, Godber was never afraid of new ways of delivering NHS ideals. Even journalists who voiced opinions about the NHS would find neat handwritten letters in the post, praising, or gently chiding for some error.

While at the London Hospital he had met and married Norma who for 55 years provided the support for an inspirational but driven man.

The couple had seven children, four of whom died in childhood or adolescence from a genetic blood -disorder.

It is perhaps not surprising that the three survivors have spent most of their careers in healthcare.


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