Laurence Dopson: Medical writer, and obituarist for 'The Independent'


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The Independent Online

Laurence Dopson spent over 65 years in nursing and medical journalism, reporting and writing on the ever-changing medical world for The Independent, the BMA, The Lancet and Nursing Standard. He was also the first man to be a member of the editorial staff of a nursing journal in Britain, Nursing Times. He witnessed the end of the Poor Law era in 1948, and was still writing on the NHS well into his eighties.

Born in Teddington, south-west London, in 1924, Laurence Dopson was the son of a Royal Mail employee and a housewife. Educated at nearby Epsom College, he had a penchant for English literature and language, but excelled at science. In 1942 he went to Edinburgh University to read medicine, but ill health forced a return to London's milder climate.

After a short period of recuperation, his mother saw an advertisement for a reporter with Nursing Times, and contacted the journal. Undeterred by such an unusual approach, its editor, Katherine Armstrong, called Dopson for interview, and despite his lack of journalistic experience, apart from a few published articles in the local press, he was offered freelance work. That evening he reported on a lecture at the Royal College of Nursing, and a month or so later he was on the staff.

Soon after, having discovered the South African Nursing Journal, which had a male editor, Dopson became their London correspondent, too. At a meeting of the RCN in London, while trying to overcome the stereotypes, Dopson gleefully recalled, "They said, 'We can't tell this joke – there's a gentleman present.' It was all good-humoured stuff."

A quick learner, Dopson soon realised that no two days were the same and that "you should always wear your smartest suit, because you never know when you'll be sent on a royal visit." With his passion for accuracy, attention to detail, and a probing interview style, his reputation grew.

In July 1948 he wrote about the birth of the National Health Service and the "cradle to the grave" social insurance scheme, hailing it as "one of the most outstanding dates in British social history". Before the Second World War healthcare had been a patchwork of private, municipal and charity schemes; Dopson noted, "[The NHS] is a peculiarly English concept. In neither France nor Germany nor any other of the greater nations of Europe has there been a continuous history of public organisation for the relief of the population."

Tenacious and inquisitive, Dopson refused to be fobbed off by bureaucrats and unions. He was equally at home interviewing ward nurses or the "great and good" and had the ability to elicit notable insights from such figures as the former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, and Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of the modern hospice movement.

Dopson wrote for many journals, and witnessed their evolution. Originally, they reported and collated clinical material from doctors' lectures, but in the 1960s, under Peggy Nuttall, Nursing Times began publishing nurses' research papers. She featured them as "occasional papers" but they appeared for seven years, by which time specialist journals had begun to appear. Dopson was also the editor of the BMA News Review until his controversial dismissal in 1978 which caused dismay in many quarters of the profession.

On retiring in 1989, Dopson continued to write medical obituaries and articles for a wide variety of publications. Roger Evans, of Nursing Standard, said, "He never once let me down and was always tremendously enthusiastic and full of ideas." Other interests included reading, the outdoor life and history, of which the heritage of nursing in the armed forces was a favourite topic; his obituary writing proved the perfect outlet for his encyclopaedic knowledge. His commitment to the nursing profession led to many enduring friendships.

He was elected as the first honorary member of AHRCO, the Association for Hospital and Residential Care Officers. He died after a short illness and is survived by his close friend Stella Shorthouse, whom he met at an AHRCO conference in 1968.

Martin Childs

Laurence Dopson, journalist: born Teddington, London 15 May 1924; died Taunton 19 June 2012.