Helen Bennett, doctor with unique understanding of her patients
Community doctor worked in baby clinics and schools - and ran immunisation programmes across Camden
16 June, 2017 — By Dan Carrier
DR Helen Bennett, who has died aged 88, was a pioneer – a doctor who qualified soon after the Second World War when female physicians were rare in the new NHS and would spend a lifetime using her knowledge to improve the lives of others.
She had volunteered as a “land girl”, planting potatoes while the country suffered shortages, before heading to Manchester University and later becoming a clinical pathologist and then a house surgeon at the Manchester Royal Infirmary. A move to London came in 1955 to take up a post at University College London Hospital. While living in a Highgate boarding house she met Peter Bennett, a recently discharged Royal Navy officer who had spent the war in submarines on the Arctic Convoys.
The couple lived in New Row, Covent Garden, but because they had not married Peter would climb out of the window every morning in his work suit so neighbours would not meet him on the stairs. They married in 1961 and moved to Woodsome Road, Dartmouth Park, and had two children, Jo and Kate.
Helen would later live in South End Green, and became a community doctor, working in baby clinics and schools. She also ran immunisation programmes across Camden. She cycled everywhere and would take biking holidays later in life. Family holidays were in their VW Camper van, journeys fuelled by Helen’s homemade Cornish pasties.
She loved cooking – her home-baked bread was so good she had a deal with a Highgate pub to sell them loaves which became a key part of their Ploughman’s lunches and her larder was always stocked with jam, marmalades, and even her own yoghurt.
In 1988, Helen was diagnosed with breast cancer and a side-effect led her into studying lymphoedema, a chronic swelling of the arm which happens to one in five women with the disease. She ran a clinic specialising in the condition at the Royal Free Hospital for 24 years as a volunteer and in 1990 became involved with the Cancerkin charity based there.
Away from medicine, she took up the recorder and played in a group for many years, and established a classical music combo called The Palace Band, based at Alexandra Palace, where she also played the clarinet. She loved yoga and took up Zumba in her 80s.
Helen was fascinated by George Bernard Shaw – partly due to his views on what he saw as the complexities of the medical profession. She disagreed strongly with Shaw’s views on preventative vaccinations – but realised she shared more in common with his politics and plays. In more recent politics, she had been a fan of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Her passions were equality, education and the NHS.
Cancerkin’s Victoria Todd said: “Her combination of knowledge of medicine, experience of running the clinic and understanding of patients was unique. Thanks to Helen’s hard work and dedication, hundreds of women gained relief from a lifetime of pain and discomfort.”