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Elizabeth Horder, family doctor who epitomised socialist ethos of the NHS

'The need for the NS does not diminish, and its basic philosophy remains as important as ever,' doctor wrote in her memoir

06 April, 2017 — By Eric Gordon

ELIZABETH June Horder, who has died at 96, was a self-effacing, modest doctor with an outsize social conscience.

She was a neighbour of mine for nearly 30 years, and she would hardly ever talk about her own life as a family doctor, only that of other doctors and of the National Health Service.

Yet she epitomised everything that is uniquely socialistic about the NHS, though she herself would, perhaps, not equate the word “socialism” with the NHS. She was a true liberal in the very British way with a code of personal and social behaviour that is run through and through with the concepts of decency.

The eldest of three sisters, she trained in medicine at Oxford, met her husband, John, also a family doctor, and became a GP in Kentish Town, living in Primrose Hill for 70 years. She started out as a family doctor during the Second World War in the years before the NHS was set up when the local GP, John Wigg, called at her house to vaccinate her daughter Annabelle against smallpox.

He was running a practice on his own – and was looking for an assistant. Naturally, she agreed to join him, and thus began a life of doctoring that continued until the 1980s. In a fascinating memoir that she penned many years ago she describes the poverty of the life of ordinary people in Kentish Town, and how the NHS changed their lives. It also paints the picture of family doctoring in a world long gone – there was no appointments system, patients just turned up and waited to be seen, and often sat by the roaring flame of a coal fire in the large front room of a large terraced house that doubled up as a surgery.

Her practice had 2,000 “insured” patients, mostly working men entitled to sickness benefit, free consultations and free medicine but not to free hospital care – the other patients were “not entitled to anything, and fees, ranging from 6d to ten shillings, had to be charged on a sliding scale….” Ms Horder and other doctors followed the debates in the press and parliament about the setting up of the NHS with “anxiety in case the plans were modified too much or failed altogether”.

In her practice the NHS was “greeted with relief. We felt that a progressive and imaginative step forward had been taken in the care that we could give our patients. The often quoted aim of ‘free care for all’ really seemed true and the needs of our patients were our priority, free from the concern of financial consequences for them”.

When the great day of the birth of the NHS came, July 5, 1948, she wrote that her “waiting room was packed with a crowd. It was first come, first served as before. But there was no sign that people were queueing up for free treatment as predicted – if there were a few extra people they were the people who had never been properly attended to be “because of their poverty”.  She once told me that her day began in the morning with seeing patients in the surgery, and then visiting patients in their home in the afternoon.

Remembering how medical treatment had advanced, she recalled how penicillin could only be given painfully by injection. Later, penicillin was given painlessly by pill. She felt privileged to have worked as a doctor, both before and at the start of the NHS.

Before, there were differences between the status of patients – afterwards, all these were swept away with everyone treated equally. She was aware of the “immense benefits” of the NHS. “The need for it does not diminish, and its basic philosophy remains as important as ever,” she wrote in her memoir.

After her retirement she spent more time playing chamber music on her viola, often with friends. She gave a lot of her free time giving advice on Childline and helping refugees.

She and her husband took part in the life of the Primrose Hill community, and once led a letter campaign complaining to the council’s planning committee that a proposal to turn two large houses into one near them in Regent’s Park Road was morally wrong in these days of homelessness.

She and her husband, who predeceased her, judged political and legal decisions through the prism of moral judgements – a rarity these days. Both were keen readers and friends of the New Journal.

Elizabeth Horder leaves two sons and two daughters. A memorial meeting is planned for the near future.

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