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The history of the NHS in England

The early years 1948-1959

Health secretary Aneurin Bevan

July 5 1948 – The NHS is born

When Aneurin Bevan (image right), the health secretary, launches the NHS at Park Hospital in Manchester (today known as Trafford General Hospital), it is the climax of a hugely ambitious plan to bring good healthcare to all.

For the first time, hospitals, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, opticians and dentists are brought together under one umbrella organisation to provide services that are free for all at the point of delivery.

The central principles are clear: the health service will be available to all and financed entirely from taxation, which means that people pay into it according to their means.  

Learn more about the history of Trafford General Hospital (PDF, 570kb) and visit the foundation trust's website to find out more about the hospital today.   

1952 – charges of one shilling are introduced for prescriptions

Prescription charges of one shilling (5p) are introduced and a flat rate of £1 for ordinary dental treatment is also brought in on June 1 1952. Prescription charges are abolished in 1965 and prescriptions remain free until June 1968, when the charges are reintroduced.

Find out about today's prescription costs

1953 – DNA structure revealed 

On April 25, James D Watson and Francis Crick, two Cambridge University scientists, describe the structure of a chemical called deoxyribonucleic acid in Nature magazine.

DNA is the material that makes up genes, which pass hereditary characteristics from parent to child. Crick and Watson begin their article: "We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest."

Knowing the structure of DNA allowed the study of disease caused by defective genes.

Other notable people who helped discover the DNA structure included Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins.

1954 – smoking and cancer link established

In the 1940s, the British scientist Sir Richard Doll begins research into lung cancer after incidences of the disease rise alarmingly. He studies lung cancer patients in 20 London hospitals and expects to reveal that the cause was fumes from coal fires, car fumes or tarmac.

His findings surprise him, and he publishes a study in the British Medical Journal, co-written with Sir Austin Bradford Hill, warning that smokers are far more likely than non-smokers to die of lung cancer. Doll gives up smoking two-thirds of the way through his study and lives to be 92. 

To find out what cancer links are made today, simply explore the Behind the Headlines cancer section. Behind the Headlines is our guide to health stories that makes the news.

1954 – daily hospital visits for children introduced

Until now, children in hospitals are often only allowed to see their parents for an hour on Saturdays and Sundays, and are frequently placed in adult wards, with little attempt to explain to them why they are there or what is going to happen.

Paediatricians Sir James Spence in Newcastle and Alan Moncriff at Great Ormond Street are taking considerable steps to change this, demonstrating that such separation is traumatic for children. As a result, daily visiting is introduced gradually.

1954 – The Percy Commission

In 1954, Winston Churchill's government set up a commission to review the existing legislative framework governing detention and care of people with mental illness.

Reporting back in 1957, The Percy Commission concluded: "The law should be altered so that whenever possible suitable care may be provided for mentally disordered patients with no more restriction of liberty or legal formality than is applied to people who need care because of other types of illness, disability or social difficulty."

The commission made two main recommendations:

  • where possible, people with mental disorders should be treated in the community and not in large psychiatric institutions
  • the barriers between the wider health system and mental health treatment should be broken down, with the latter absorbed into the NHS

1958 – polio and diphtheria vaccinations programme launched

One of the primary aims of the NHS is to promote good health, not simply to treat illness. The introduction of the polio and diphtheria vaccines is a key part of NHS plans. Before this programme, cases of polio could climb as high as 8,000 in epidemic years, with cases of diphtheria as high as 70,000, leading to 5,000 deaths.

This programme ensures everyone under the age of 15 is vaccinated and will lead to an immediate and dramatic reduction in cases of both diseases.

Explore today's NHS vaccination guidance.

1959 – Mental Health Act

The Mental Health Act built on the recommendations of the Percy Commission (1954) and repealed the Lunacy and Mental Treatment Acts (1890-1930) and the Mental Deficiency Acts (1913-1938). It made new provision for the treatment and care of people with mental health problems.

For the first time, it was established that community care should be prioritised and that patients with mental ill health should not be considered any different from other types of sick people.  

    Page last reviewed: 06/06/2018

    Next review due: 06/06/2021

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