Dame Cicely Saunders (1918–2005) was the founder of the modern hospice movement. Her experiences with people suffering at the end of their life, and the good relationships she had with her patients, inspired her life’s work.
Dame Cicely began her medical career training as a nurse at St Thomas’ Hospital, later qualifying in social administration. While working in London she met someone who was to shape her career. David Tasma was a Jewish refugee from the Warsaw ghetto and was dying of cancer. Their conversations about end-of-life treatment included an idea of a safe environment – not a hospital – in which people could die in more comforting, familiar surroundings. Her Christian beliefs were also a huge influence, and she spent time volunteering for various charities.
Other encounters also steered Dame Cicely towards medicine. A surgeon, Norman Barrett, advised her to become a physician, commenting ‘it’s the doctors who desert the dying’.
Believing patients deserved more holistic and well-rounded care at the end of their lives, Dame Cicely founded St Christopher’s Hospice in 1967. It was a world first: the only purpose-built hospice which would not only look after a patient’s medical needs, but would have a strong focus on pain and symptom relief, and would aim to meet a patient’s social, emotional and spiritual needs, as well as their physical ones. It was also a place for families and friends to feel welcome and part of the process.
Dame Cicely’s philosophy was very much ‘there is still so much more to be done’. Her constant hard work and striving for better-quality facilities shone through her eminent career of lecturing and chairing committees, which continued into her 80s. She also co-founded a charity, Cicely Saunders International, which helped create the world’s first purpose-built Institute of Palliative Care, supporting research into pain management. She was awarded several prestigious prizes – the Onassis prize for services to humanity, a DBE, and the Order of Merit.
These are some of my favourite words from Dame Cicely:
You matter because you are you and you matter to the last moment of your life. We will do all we can to help you, not only to die peacefully, but to live until you die.
This really sums up her entire vision – that people deserve respect, support and dignity in their final days, and a hospice environment can achieve this.
Beth Wilkey, assistant curator