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Doctor Wendy Greengross: Champion of the elderly and the disabled


Peta Steel
Tuesday 06 November 2012 01:00 GMT
Greengross: she had her own BBC radio show and a 'Sun' column
Greengross: she had her own BBC radio show and a 'Sun' column

Wendy Greengross was a pioneering counsellor and one of the leading figures in fighting for equal rights for the disabled and the elderly, people she felt were not treated or cared for by society as individuals. A compassionate, caring woman, she wasn't scared of causing controversy, raising subjects – particularly sexual ones – which were looked on as potentially embarrassing or which challenged what she looked on as outdated perceptions of how those less able to look after themselves should be treated.

Greengross was born in Brent Cross in North London in 1925. Her parents – Morris, a jeweller, and Miriam – were members of a liberal Jewish community which believed in playing an active part in public service, an ideal drummed into their children. Morris would become Mayor of Holborn, her brother Alan a leading Conservative member of the GLC.

Her wartime education was interrupted by evacuation: she and fellow pupils were moved from their South Hampstead High School to Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire. Deciding to pursue a medical career, she was one of three women accepted in 1943 by University College Hospital, at a time when quotas for women were still operating. On qualifying in 1949 she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to the Chicago Lying-in Hospital. Just before her departure she met Alex Kates, a surgeon, and accepted his proposal of marriage a week later. They married in 1951 and had five children.

Greengross and Kates worked together, taking over a large general practice in Tottenham, north London, which offered family planning. They became the first practice in the UK to employ a marriage guidance counsellor. She remained in practice for almost 35 years and trained as a counsellor with the Marriage Guidance Council (now Relate), eventually becoming its Chief Medical Adviser.

Her first two books, Sex in The Middle Years (1969) and Sex in Early Marriage (1970), earned her both publicity and notoriety as she spelt out the fact that women, married or not, enjoyed sex, and were still likely to do so over the age of 40. She pointed out that a wife shouldn't just have sex with her husband because it was a duty, but because she enjoyed it.

The books Entitled to Love – the Sexual and Emotional Needs of the Handicapped (1976) and Sex and The Handicapped Child (1980) reflected her arguments, controversial at that time, that people with disabilities were entitled to be sexually active, and that parents should come to terms with understanding that their children should be allowed to obtain sexual maturity, even if suffering from some form of mental or physical difficulty. In the 1990s, she wrote Living, Loving and Ageing with her sister-in-law Lady Sally Greengross, arguing that sex for the elderly was as much as part of their lives as it had always been.

She was a founding member, then chair, of Sexual Problems of Disabled People (SPOD), and later a member of the Warnock Committee on Fertilisation and Embryology and a founder of the Residential Care Consortium. She became a radio contributor and was a counsellor on Radio 4's If You Think You've Got Problems, which ran for eight years. She also hosted her own programme, Let's Talk It Over, for the BBC in 1973. Later she appeared on the Central TV series Getting On, giving advice on sex and help for the elderly. She acted as an advisor for the Central soap opera Crossroads, and was an agony aunt on The Sun in its pre-Murdoch days.

She never lost contact with her Jewish roots, undertaking work early on with the Association of Jewish Youth. In 1969 she played a key role at the Leo Baeck College in London setting up a pastoral care programme for rabbinical students.

Rabbi Dr Tony Bayfield CBE, President of the Movement of Judaism Reform, remembered her unusual way of teaching the students about how they should come to terms with their own sexuality: "I definitely remember the sex film she showed us," he said, "in which we saw a heterosexual couple, a lesbian couple and a gay couple making love. She was always clear-sighted, incisive and determined; witty, compassionate and modest to the point of self depreciation."

Greengross was unafraid of taking on what she believed were outdated ideas within the Jewish community, In 1979 she wrote Jewish and Homosexual, published by the Reform Movement, in which she argued that gays and lesbians had an unequivocal right to an equal place within the community.

Alex died in 1982; despite her devastation, Greengross was as active as ever, serving as a member of the board of the quarterly journal MANNA set up to help progressive movements, writing articles encompassing motherhood, Jewish fatherhood and death. She also served as trustee and later Vice President of Leonard Cheshire Disability. On 3 March 1980 Leonard Cheshire wrote the following message to Greengross: "We have needed somebody with the kind of expert knowledge and experience you have, but it is not always easy to find both this and a compassionate human approach. So we count ourselves very fortunate."

Her son Nicholas Kates said: 'She will be remembered as an outspoken pioneer who advocated for the rights of people living with physical and emotional problems, and could make things happen. She was a visionary who helped change the way our community and maybe even our country viewed sexuality, disabilities and ageing."

Wendy Greengross Kates, general practitioner and social activist: born London 29 October 1925; married 1951 Alexander Kates (died 1982; four children, and one child deceased); died London 10 October 2012.

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