Sir George Godber: Government's Chief Medical Officer who helped to establish the fledgling National Health Service

Thursday 12 February 2009 01:00

It is rising 59 years since George Godber first occupied a pivotal position in the running of the National Health Service. He was hand-picked by Sir Wilson Jameson, then Chief Medical Officer, to behis eventual successor but one and, in 1950, at the age of 41, was appointed his deputy.

As the NHS historian Charles Webster put it in his Problems of Health Care: the National Health Service before 1957 (1988): "Jameson had occupied this office during the 10 stormiest years in his department's history. His calm judgement and 'unruffled courtesy' earned him credit on all sides. He was succeeded by Dr John A. Charles, one of two Deputy Chief Medical Officers, who occupied this post until 1960. He was increasingly overshadowed by Dr George E. Godber, his energetic and visionary Deputy CMO and successor as Chief Medical Officer."

As Richard Crossman's Parliamentary Private Secretary I was present to see Godber in action as CMO on an almost daily basis in the years 1967-70, when he was at the zenith of his power and influence and, by hook or by crook, had his way with ministers and civil servants. "George Godber wasprepared to take risks in backing transplant surgery, in days far different from now, when blood loss was considerable and we knew much less about what we were doing," the surgeon Sir Roy Calne said. "It was Godber against virtually all the rest and, as usual, Godber prevailed. I admired him enormously."

George Edward Godber was born in 1908, the eldest of five sons of Isaac Godber, a farmer, of Willington Manor in Bedfordshire. His only medicalconnection, since his mother also came from a farming family, was a relative who was a general practitioner in Derbyshire. His youngest brother, Joseph, born in 1914, served as the Conservative MP for Grantham between 1951 and 1979. "I hear you are getting on like a house on fire with my dear left-leaning brother!" Joe Godber said to me in 1969 in the corridor of the House of Commons. But, for all their political differences, the Godbers were a close-knit family.

From Bedford School, where there was a medical section in the sixth form, Godber won a scholarship to Oxford. At New College he rowed for the university in a crew that lost the Boat Race badly, but made contacts which would be useful for over half a century. He was inspired to pursue public work partly by his Warden, the historian H.A.L. Fisher. Fisher was Lloyd George's Education Secretary and was also one of the mentors of the young New College don Dick Crossman, who was later to become Godber's Secretary of State.

From New College, Godber undertook his medical training at the London Hospital and the London School of Hygiene. "The real thing about my time in the London Hospital," he later said, "was that it probably had the best nursing staff of all the London teaching hospitals. I kept one!" Godber enjoyed the happiest of marriages with Norma Hathorne Rainey, a nurse at the London whom he met while he was a House Officer. They were married in 1935.

In 1937 Godber moved to a public health career in Surrey. On account of his work on communicable diseases, he was chosen to join the Department of Health in 1938, which he served for the next 34 years. In charge of the North Midland Region when the Beveridge Report was published, promising a government health service, he concentrated on the problems in Lincolnshire.

"A hospital is a group of people more than a structure and most of our provincial centres weren't evenone group of people," he said. "There were nearly two-thirds of a million people living in Lincolnshire atthat time and there wasn't oneresident full-time pathologist, or a paediatrician, which shows you how absurd the situation was. What impressed us was that there must be a mechanism for filling in the gaps in the specialist services and organising them as effective groups."

On his appointment as Deputy Chief Medical Officer and during his time as CMO, Godber put the deficiencies of health care right, ensuring that specialists were evenly distributed, that general practitioners worked in teams in purpose-built health centres, and that all doctors kept up to date with new educational departures. His other important initiatives included putting the contraceptive pill on prescription and launching public health campaigns, particularly against tobacco smoking.

If Godber had his problems with some of the medical heavyweights, such as Lord Moran, whom he called "Corkscrew Charlie", he got on well with Aneurin Bevan and thought that the Conservative Iain Macleod was a good Health Minister. The only trouble was that Macleod was addicted to smoking. Godber recollected that he had said in 1962 to Keith Joseph, another of his Conservative ministers, that "we really have to do something about abolishing smoking" (having won the approval of the Health Minister Enoch Powell). Joseph looked quite shocked and said: "You really can't expect to abolish smoking." Godber replied: "No, but I want to see it reduced to an activity of consenting adults in private."

When the Labour government came in, in 1964, Godber established an excellent relationship with Harold Wilson's Minister of Health, Kenneth Robinson, whose father had been a general practitioner and was fully understanding of the problems. However, as Crossman recalled in his diary for 26 July 1968, after his appointment as Secretary of State for Health and Social Security:

"In the afternoon, Sir George Godber came to see me and I took his advice straight away on how to handle my new position. 'Will it pay me,' I asked him, 'if Kenneth stays on for some time with me as Minister and I become a super-minister?' Godber was commendably frank. 'No,' he said. 'It would be impossible for you because there would be unfavourable comparisons between you and him.'

What I remember about those days in the Department of Health, based in the Elephant and Castle, was Godber's willingness to subscribe to what appeared to be a minority view and then to win over his Secretary of State. He protected the scheme of Merit Awards when most Labour politicians wanted to abolish them. He was in favour of disturbing the hornet's nest of investigating private nursing homes. He was prepared, in the light of scandals headlined in the tabloids at the mental hospitals of Ely in Cardiff, Friern Barnet and South Ockendon, to work for a new deal for the mentally ill.

"I can't break with Godber," wrote Crossman in his diary in October 1969. "He is a very powerful man of the department and people never like acting against his wishes. He is away half of the time around the world, advising the World Health Organisation, in America, lecturing. He is remote, out of touch now I think, except with the lord high panjandra and the physicians in the Royal Colleges of London. He knows all the top people, but nothing about ordinary life, yet on the other hand he is radical and left-wing. I don't want to quarrel with him."

It is true that Godber had a worldwide reputation, but Keith Joseph, Crossman's successor, told me that he had the highest regard for his CMO, who had his finger on both the national and international pulse.

In the year of his retirement as CMO, he was elected an Honorary Fellow of New College. At the Oxford University Encaenia of 1973, the Public Orator saluted Godber for his devotion to the development and administration of the National Health Service, who "ate, slept and bathed with his budget of work at the Elephant and Castle... Ipse enim vir strenuus, iuvenis bis ad remigium pro Academia vocatus, Bacchi integer et fumi nicotiani dissuasor" – briefly, 'twice a rowing Blue, a teetotaller and non-smoker.'"

For 35 years after I left the Department of Health, in recent years in connection with writing obituaries for The Independent, I would phone Godber. Forthcoming and enjoying perfect recall, he insisted usually on being off the record – he was a man uninterested in personal publicity and concerned only about the good opinion of himself by the medical cognoscenti. He was as clear as a bell until a few months ago.

Tam Dalyell

As far as is known, Sir George Godber was the oldest living Blue, writes Christopher Dodd. He was able to cast his mind back to the Boat Races of 1928 and 1929, when he represented Oxford in an unfortunate period for the Dark Blues – a time when Cambridge were storming through the longest run of victories, 13, in the race's history. In 1927 the freshman Hugh "Jumbo" Edwards had collapsed in an Oxford boat dogged by injuries, and when Godber made the crew nextyear he remembers being taken aside by one of the coaches to be toldhow important it was not to repeatthe shame of the last freshman to row for Oxford.

As a staunch teetotaller, Godber's main recall of his first trial eights dinner was of carrying most of the participants on to the bus at the end of the evening, and having to keep chasing those still mobile enough to get off again while he was doing it. There was also some difficulty when Oxford reached the Tideway because the training diet included beer and Guinness. He declined, and after a solemn interview with the president and coaches, a less unpalatable alternative was prescribed.

The New College freshman rowed in the six seat at 12.5 stone. Cambridge's win was never in doubt, but when Oxford looked at their boat afterwards the stern section appeared tohave been twisted, and there weresuspicions that it had been sabotaged, although the matter wasn't takenany further.

The next year, 1929, was the centenary Boat Race and the 81st in the series. Godber rowed at two; Oxford were again faced with a strong Cambridge crew, and their bow man Patrick Barr (later to star in The Merry Men of Sherwood, The Dam Busters and Billy Liar, among other films) experienced a similar collapse to Edwards'. Cambridge won by seven lengths, three fewer than the year before, and squared the series at 40 wins each, with one dead heat. Godber recalled that Barr was very pale and unable to speak for several minutes at the finish. He always felt that this sort of episode was due to a transient cardiac dysfunction, triggered by the unusual length of the race but less obvious to observers because of the sedentary nature of rowing.

In 1930 Godber stood for president but was beaten by Alistair Graham after some shenanigans with thetime of the meeting. He felt that this outcome might have been relatedto his stated plan, subversive to some, to engage Steve Fairbairn, thegreat coach of the Cam. Godber remained secretary but did not row in the race, refusing also to take part in the mutiny that displaced Graham from the crew. Oxford lost again, and apart from stroking New College and, years later, officiating occasionally at Bedford Regatta, Godber's rowing career was over.

George Edward Godber, medical officer: born Willington, Bedfordshire 4 August 1908; Medical Officer, Ministry of Health 1939, Deputy Chief Medical Officer1950-60; CB 1958, KCB 1962, GCB 1971; Chief Medical Officer, Department of Health and Social Security, Department of Education and Science, and Home Office 1960-73; Chairman, HealthEducation Council 1977-78; married 1935 Norma Hathorne Rainey (died 1999;two sons, one daughter, and two sons and two daughters deceased); died 7 February 2009.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in