According to a recent internet poll, the greatest ever black Briton was a Jamaican born nursing pioneer who tended to wounded soldiers in the Crimean War. If you have never heard of Mary Seacole (1805-1881), you are not alone - she never got the recognition she deserved. And hers is a story echoed by the experiences of so many of the immigrants who helped set up the NHS in the Fifties and who day by day keep it running.
Though less well-known than Florence Nightingale, Seacole's achievements rival those of the more famous "Lady with the Lamp". Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Seacole was the daughter of a Scottish soldier and a Jamaican healing-woman; she travelled widely and gained expertise in treating cholera, one of the main health problems for British soldiers in the Crimean War. Seacole was forced to make her own way out to Russia - London authorities refused her offer of aid - where her self-funded improvised hospital saved many lives. Overshadowed by Florence Nightingale, Seacole's contribution to British healthcare has only been acknowledged in the last few years.
A hundred years after the Crimean War, the newly started NHS turned to immigrant labour to operate - as it does still today. As black writer and political activist Darcus Howe recently said: "Don't talk to us about the NHS - we've been carrying it on our backs for 40 years."
Black workers have played a crucial role in providing public services since the late Fifties and in the aftermath of the Second World War. Today we extend a welcome to overseas nurses, for example, that come to the UK and cover for the chronic shortage of nurses. Without them, the health service would collapse.
Our public services rely heavily on both new and old immigrant help. The 2001 census showed that just over a quarter of all public sector workers were from black and minority ethnic groups, as are 40 per cent of doctors, dentists and nurses, rising to more than half among nursing auxiliaries.
June 2003 research from the Mayor of London's office found that although nearly 200,000 Londoners from minority communities work in local government, health and other sectors, they remain on the lower steps of the career ladder, with not enough people from an ethnic minority background currently in senior positions.
This can be frustrating. For example Gloria, a registered general nurse whose working life has been dedicated to the NHS since emigrating here, says: "Many of us are dedicated to the health service, despite the problems, but it can be demoralising for some."
June, a black nurse at Hammersmith Hospital NHS Trust in London, wants to see black staff having much more of a say in the way the NHS is run. "This is something that quite frankly is well overdue." She believes that black staff have also been left behind for too long in the training and promotion stakes. "It's time for us to not have to justify ourselves," she says. "The NHS is an important institution, but I worry that there's too much indirect racism. It's about time we stopped having to justify ourselves and people started looking beyond our skins - to our character and dedication."
Today's public services serve a much more culturally mixed UK than in Seacole's time. Just under 10 per cent of British residents are now from ethnic minorities, a figure that climbs to around 30 per cent in London, and by 2050 about 20 per cent of the British population will come from an ethnic minority - many of them fourth or fifth generation.
And Gloria and June - modern-day Mary Seacoles - simply won't sit back and let the black community's major contribution to the NHS be taken for granted. Their commitment to the NHS as a public service is not only demonstrated through their work as nurses, but also as union activists. They are superb advocates for union members in combating injustices at work. But they are also vocal in their demand that the NHS responds to and reflects the population in both its services and its employment policies and practices. Only then can it be said to be a truly public service.
The message is clear: immigration has and will continue to provide a mainstay of health provision, very much in the tradition of the pioneering Mary Seacole.
Wilf Sullivan is National Black Members Officer for UnisonReuse content