Pioneering work of Dame Cicely Saunders featured in prime time TV drama

Categories: In The Media.

Another character, who later in the episode decided to leave midwifery to become a Marie Curie nurse, highlighted the work of Cicely Saunders, who later became the founder of the modern hospice movement and was doing pioneering work in the care of the dying at the time the programme is set, in the 1950’s.

A statement on the Marie Curie website states that the programme’s writer and executive producer, Heidi Thomas, wrote the episode for reasons very close to her heart. Heidi is quoted as saying:

“I first witnessed the miraculous power of a good death when someone very close to me passed away in a Marie Curie hospice. Bereavement will always hurt, but letting a loved one go with tenderness and care can be immensely healing for all involved. The end of life is as important as its beginning, which is why we decided to tackle this supremely emotional topic in Call the Midwife.”

The episode can be viewed on the BBC iPlayer.

We thought we would take this opportunity to briefly reflect on the impact Dame Cicely Saunders had and how far end of life care has come in the UK since she started her pioneering work.

The work of Dame Cicely Saunders

Through her work, Cicely Saunders forged a modern philosophy of terminal care. She developed this first at St Joseph’s Hospice in Hackney, East London.

Addressing every aspect of pain

By listening carefully to patients’ stories of illness, disease and suffering, Cicely evolved the concept of ‘total pain’. This view of pain moved beyond the physical to encompass social, emotional and even spiritual aspects of suffering.

She linked this to a hard-headed approach to pain management in which her message was simple: constant pain needs constant control. Analgesics were to be given regularly to prevent pain, rather than alleviate it; and they should be used progressively, from mild, to moderate, to strong.

St Christopher’s Hospice

When Cicely Saunders founded St Christopher’s Hospice in South London in 1967, it quickly became a source of inspiration to others. As the first ‘modern’ hospice, it sought to combine three key principles – excellent clinical care, education and research – making it significantly different from earlier homes for the dying. It also sought to establish itself as a centre of excellence in a new field of care.

St Christopher’s Hospice’s success was phenomenal. It soon became the stimulus for an expansive phase of hospice development in Britain and around the world.

Care beyond hospices

From the outset, ideas developed at St Christopher’s were applied differently in other settings. Within a decade it was accepted that the principles of hospice care could be practised in many settings; not just in specialist inpatient units, but also in home care and day care services. Hospital units and support teams were established that brought the new thinking about dying into the heartland of acute medicine.

Now there are now over 200 independent hospices throughout the country, providing inpatient care and care in the community to hundreds of thousands of people, making the hospice movement an integral part of health and social care in the UK.

This brief history was taken from the website of the national charity for hospice care, Help the Hospices. Find out more about hospice care at

Last year, we published an interview with Dr Mary Baines, a close friend of Dame Cicely, in which she talks about the pioneering work the two women did together. You can still read this article on ehospice.

For a more in-depth history on the hospice movement, access the recently published ‘Palliative Medicine in the UK c.1970–2010’.

For a history of Marie Curie and information on their Marie Curie nursing service, visit the website: You may also be interested to read a blog post on the Marie Curie website by a nurse who followed a similar path to the nurse from the Call a Midwife story line by switching from midwifery to end of life care.  

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