Had the founder of the NHS, Aneurin Bevan, not made grants available for the poor to train as doctors, Madeleine Sharp would have remained a nurse. It was the support she received to study at Edinburgh University Medical School that began her international career as a practical Christian Socialist, peace campaigner, inner-city GP and medical aid-worker to the war-ravaged countries of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
At her funeral at her parish church in Coventry, the Vietnamese Ambassador, Fo Kwan Min, said that she represented the best that Britain had given to the people of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. “We are thankful for such a wonderful person,” he said. “She touched my life with her devotion for over 50 years – first as a peace activist and then organising medical aid.”
Madeleine Agnes Sharp was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1920. At school she developed a photographic memory; even in retirement she could recite all the poems and songs she had been taught. Her parents could not afford to pay for her to train as a doctor, so she served during the Second World War in Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps. Her experiences in India convinced her to look at practical ways in which Christianity could be used to better the majority.
The NHS grant enabled her to graduate from Edinburgh University Medical School. She became a GP at an inner-city practice in Coventry and stayed there for over 30 years, retiring as the senior partner.
Sharp was never afraid to stand up for the poor and downtrodden, whether it was fighting for better food in hospitals, opposing production-line maternity wards where babies were routinely induced to make life easier for the consultants, and opposing US involvement in Vietnam. In 1965 she joined the Medical Aid Committee for Vietnam, which later became the Medical & Scientific Aid to Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia. Sharp served as Hon Secretary from 1987-2009. She could persuade even the most cynical journalist to take an interest in their work: those sparkling blue eyes and sense of humour quickly got most peoples’ support.
A major problem for her committee was the number of people who had lost legs due to stepping on land mines. Western technology was too expensive, but Sharp came across a limb that was easy to make in a low-technology environment. She was happy to show “before” and “after” films to anyone who expressed the slightest interest. The sight of a one-legged man being fitted with one of these prosthetic limbs and then jumping on his bike usually convinced everyone.
Sharp also worked with the Vietnamese government to reduce the high rates of infant mortality, improve medical training and see how traditional treatments could work alongside Western medicine.
Sharp was awarded the MBE for her work defending human rights and humanitarian causes in Southeast Asia. She was a leading member of the Lord Mayor’s Peace Committee and attracted international speakers to give the annual Peace Lecture in Coventry, including Ted Heath, Mo Mowlam and Harold Wilson. She was also awarded the Vietnamese Government’s Order of Friendship in 1992, the Coventry Peace Prize in 2004 and the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Order of Merit in 2013.
Madeleine Agnes Sharp, general practitioner and peace campaigner: born Newcastle upon Tyne 13 July 1920; MBE 2002; died Coventry 7 January 2014.