Frank Honigsbaum

Historian of the National Health Service
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The Independent Online

Frank Honigsbaum was an historian of the National Health Service who cared passionately about universal healthcare and the importance of general practice.

Frank Honigsbaum, historian: born Boston, Massachusetts 30 January 1927; Senior Research Officer, Department of Social Policy, London School of Economics 1959-60; Associate Research Fellow, King's College London 1989-90; Senior Research Fellow, Birmingham University 1994-95; married 1959 Naomi Martin (one son, one daughter); died London 23 June 2004.

Frank Honigsbaum was an historian of the National Health Service who cared passionately about universal healthcare and the importance of general practice.

Born in the United States in 1927, he came to England in 1957 on a Fulbright Scholarship. Under the supervision of Richard Titmuss, Professor of Social Administration at the London School of Economics, Honigsbaum studied the evolution of general practice, and the establishment of the NHS. The result was two books, The Division in British Medicine: a history of the separation of general practice from hospital care 1911-1968 (1979) and Health, Happiness and Security: the creation of the National Health Service (1989).

Their detailed analysis of historical records, and painstaking assessments of the relevance of history for contemporary debates about health care, make them as relevant today as they were when they were published.

Under Titmuss's influence, in the late Sixties Honigsbaum became involved in advising Labour politicians (including Richard Crossman and Barbara Castle), and he was also active in the NHS at a local level. He was a member of the Westminster Association for Mental Health from 1981 to 1987, and later chaired the Riverside Community Health Council and served on the Riverside District Health Authority in London. Ideas were always of interest to Honigsbaum, but it was the opportunity to turn ideas into action and to make a difference to fellow citizens that marked him out from his peers.

His commitment to use his research in practice was exemplified by work on priority setting in health care, both in the UK and the US. His study of Oregon's approach to priority setting led to the publication of a report by the King's Fund, Who Shall Live? Who Shall Die?, in 1991.

Subsequently, I worked with Honigsbaum at Birmingham University on a number of projects examining priority setting in the NHS, and in the international context. He was meticulous and enthusiastic in equal measure, a perpetual student who was never afraid to acknowledge his ignorance, and always delighted at discovering some new angle or snippet of information about the topic under investigation.

Honigsbaum's appreciation of the NHS reinforced his frustration and anger at the inequities in health care that persisted in the US. He offered help and advice to the Carter and Clinton administrations on the reform of Medicare and Medicaid, but to no avail. Whatever the weaknesses of the NHS, Honigsbaum was convinced that universal coverage and effective primary care were the cornerstones of a civilised society.

Perhaps because of the difficulties of turning ideas into practice, he had a hinterland that provided comfort and sustenance not only to himself but to all those whom he knew. He was a lover of jazz and tennis, and passionate about everything with which he came into contact.

Right up until his death was hard at work on a third book, reinterpreting Lloyd George's motivations for passing health insurance.

Chris Ham