Obituary: Professor Margot Jefferys

Click to follow
MARGOT JEFFERYS was one of the founders of medical sociology as an academic discipline. Her teaching and research over more than 30 years helped to establish the thinking, now commonplace, that social factors contribute significantly to health.

The seeds of her career were sown in 1953 when she went to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. There she taught what later became known as medical sociology to public health doctors and general practitioners at postgraduate level. Her research into health and social services in Buckinghamshire resulted in the book An Anatomy of Social Welfare Services (1965).

During this period she developed networks of like-minded social scientists, including Ann Cartwright and Raymond Illsley, who gathered together to discuss issues such as social class and health. More formal gatherings at this time were less successful. One participant of the 1956 Medical Research Council-funded meeting at the London School on the role of sociology in medicine commented that medicine was looking for a docile wife but sociology was non-compliant. Jefferys was disappointed but undaunted.

In 1965 she was appointed Director of Social Research and Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Bedford College, London University, where she remained until retirement in 1982. Recognition of her subject came in 1968 with her appointment as the first ever Professor of Medical Sociology. Following the Royal Commission on Medical Education (The Todd Report, 1968), she was invited to develop undergraduate medical sociology in the London medical schools, now de rigueur nationwide.

The masters degree in the sociology of medicine which Jefferys taught from 1969 became nationally and internationally renowned. Many of her students are now key players in medicine or sociology. Later, as a consultant to the World Health Organisation, she helped launch an international research programme in behavioural sciences and the sociology of medical education.

Her work with GPs was of crucial importance, both practical and academic. The seminal 1970 report of the British Medical Association Working Group on Primary Health Care which she chaired was perhaps the most independent of the BMA Planning Unit's reports. From that year to 1982 the DHSS funded her team on primary health care: Jefferys' Rethinking General Practice: dilemmas in primary medical care, co-authored with Hessie Sachs, appeared in 1983. In November 1988 the Royal College of General Practitioners gave her an Honorary Fellowship: one among many honours accorded to her at home and abroad.

She was born Margot Davies in India in 1916, coming to England aged eight to be educated at Berkhamsted School in Hertfordshire. She had started out as an economic historian, graduating in 1938 (with first class honours) from the London School of Economics. Her first academic appointment was at Bedford College in 1949, where she researched Mobility in the Labour Market (1954). Taught at LSE by R.H. Tawney and Eileen Powers, she retained throughout her life a strong commitment to thorough historical scholarship.

A deep belief in equality, liberty and justice guided her life, in politics and academe. Events of the 1930s - mass unemployment, hunger marches, the civil war in Spain, Nazi persecution of Jews and political opponents - led her, as many other intellectuals, to the Communist Party. In this context she, with James Jefferys whom she married in 1941, became an ordinary worker in munitions factories in Coventry. Margot stayed in the CP until Soviet tanks crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956 when, along with others who shared her values, she left. Thereafter she worked with former comrades in the "new left" to rethink the way forward.

After her "retirement" in 1982 Jefferys continued her research, publishing the well-received collection on ageing, Growing Old in the Twentieth Century (1989). This research and many national and international contributions continued while she held a visiting professorship at King's College Centre for Medical Law and Ethics.

Margot Jefferys had avoided the "doctor-bashing" label some sociologists earned - they sometimes thought she had become, in her words, "a doctors' moll". Not so: patients and doctors alike can be grateful for her ability to offer knowledge in a way the medical profession found salient.

This success was a direct reflection of the person she was: strong, independently minded, generous and loving. She helped many of us, recognising and bringing out hidden talents, sometimes by sharp criticism, offering support in adversity. Although not a Women's Liberation kind of feminist, she was particularly helpful to women, conscious of the disadvantages and difficulties we faced.

Margot Davies, medical sociologist: born Madras 1 November 1916; Lecturer, Department of Public Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine 1953-65; Director of Social Research, Bedford College, London University 1965-82, Senior Lecturer in Sociology 1965-66, Reader 1966-68, Professor of Medical Sociology 1968-82 (Emeritus); married 1941 James Jefferys (two sons; marriage dissolved 1959); died London 3 March 1999.