Vignette: GP and political activist Baroness Edith Clara Summerskill (1901 - 1980)

GP and political activist Baroness Edith Clara Summerskill (1901 - 1980)

  • Date: 01 January 2014

“TIMES were different then” and it took vision and the determination of a few people to change them. Political activity, female equality with men and the desire to improve healthcare were the lifelong driving forces of Dr Edith Summerskill.

One of Edith’s early memories was of being driven by a coachman in a horse-drawn victoria with her father William Summerskill to visit his patients in north London. What she saw then of illness, hardship and inequality for women inspired her career. Her father had supported women’s suffrage and also instilled socialist ideas in her.

Edith was the youngest of three children and was educated at Eltham Hill grammar school. She finished school the year WW1 ended and continued her education at King’s College, University of London. Summerskill studied medicine at Charing Cross Hospital (MRCP, LRCP 1924) where she met and in 1925 married Edward Jeffrey Samuel, retaining her maiden name. They worked together as general practitioners until the end of WW2 but Edith always combined medicine with politics. Working married women were quite rare in the 1930s and Summerskill became an early member of the Married Women’s Association.

It was a time when effective medicines were few but her father had shown her the importance of a good bedside manner and allowing time for the patient to speak. Those drugs that were available were not always given, notably anaesthetics were often denied to mothers at childbirth. This unnecessary suffering inspired Edith to write her first book Babies without Tears.

Only by political action could health and female equality be achieved. Summerskill had joined the Socialist Medical Association in the early thirties, and a publicly funded and administered healthcare service was one of its aims. In 1934 she won a by-election to Middlesex county council and represented the working-class Green Lanes division of Tottenham until 1941.

Her first attempt to be selected as an MP failed because of opposition to her support for birth control but in 1938 she was elected as MP for West Fulham. She was delighted when Clement Atlee made her parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Food. She might have preferred health but in fact she made a great contribution to health by reform of the dairy industry to ensure that supplies of milk were free from tuberculosis bacilli (Clean Milk Act 1949).

Food shortages and rationing continued for many years after the war so she had a great responsibility for the welfare of the British population. During this period Edith was a member of the Fabian Society. She was appointed to the Privy Council in 1949.

In 1950, for a brief period before the fall of the Atlee government, she held ministerial office for Social and National Insurance. Then, when Labour lost power, she served as a minister in the Shadow cabinet until 1959. Of course, she had political enemies in her own party, notably Bevan who she thought had unjustly claimed the NHS as his creation.

Her concern for women was not confined to Britain. She supported the republican side in the Spanish Civil War through the National Women’s Appeal for Food for Spain, and visited refugee camps for women and children. In 1944 she was invited to Australia and New Zealand, a journey that took her round the world. She was often the only woman among politicians and diplomats but easily held her own. Everywhere she fearlessly addressed issues of female equality.

A decade later she became Labour party chairman. Boundary changes abolished her constituency, so from 1955 she was elected MP for Warrington. In 1961 she was made a life peer and continued her career in the House of Lords as Baroness Summerskill of Kenwood. The 1964 Married Women’s Property Act, introduced as a private member’s bill, was energetically and successfully campaigned for by her. Among other campaigns she supported were reform of the law on homosexuality, legalisation of abortion and opposition to boxing which was supported by evidence that it caused brain damage.

She became one of a select group when she was awarded Order of the Companions of Honour (CH) in 1966. The award of political honours had come under question and Summerskill was invited to apply her intelligence and probity by serving on the House of Commons Political Honours Scrutiny Committee.

She had two children: Michael and Shirley, who followed her mother as a doctor and politician. Over the years Edith had written to her daughter and frankly discussed issues such as female sexuality and education. In 1957 she published a book of a selection, entitled Letters to my daughter.

Edith Summerskill died at home in Highgate, London, on 4 February 1980 in her 79th year.

Julia Merrick is a freelance writer and editor in Edinburgh


From Summons Winter 2014, p 23

Summons Winter 2014
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