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Biographical entry Saunders, Dame Cicely Mary Strode (1918 - 2005)

OM 1989; DBE 1980; OBE 1967; Hon FRCS 1986; BA Oxford 1945; MB BS London 1957; MRCP 1968; FRCP 1974; FRCN 1981.

22 June 1918
Barnet, Hertfordshire, UK
14 July 2005
London, UK
Nurse and Physician


Dame Cicely Saunders established St Christopher's Hospice in London, which became the model for hundreds of other hospices. She was born in Barnet, Hertfordshire, on 22 June 1918, the daughter of Gordon Saunders, a domineering estate agent, and Mary Christian Wright. She was educated at Roedean and St Anne's College, Oxford, and on the outbreak of war deferred completing her degree to become a nurse. She entered St Thomas's, but a back injury put an end to a career in nursing. She returned to complete her degree at Oxford and qualified as a lady almoner (a hospital social worker).

By now she had fallen in love with David Tasma, a refugee from the Warsaw ghetto, who was dying of cancer. Through him she learned how the pain of cancer could be tamed by modern drugs, and that the inevitable distress of the dying could be made tolerable by care in which physical and spiritual needs were combined. At this time she also gave up her agnostic stance and became a committed and evangelical Christian. Her experience as a volunteer at St Luke's Home for the Dying Poor caused her to realise that the received medical views on dying and bereavement needed to be changed, and to do this she needed to become a doctor. She returned to St Thomas's and qualified in 1957, at the age of 38.

She set up a research group to study the control of pain, while also working at St Joseph's, Hackney, which was run for the dying by the formidably down-to-earth Sisters of Charity. Before long Cicely had reached the unorthodox conclusion that the usual intermittent giving of morphine for surges of pain was far less effective than giving enough morphine to achieve a steady state in which the dying patient could still maintain consciousness, self-respect and a measure of dignity. It was at St Joseph's that she met Antoni Michniewicz, who for the second time taught her that loving and being in love were powerful medicaments in terminal illness.

His death determined her to set up St Christopher's Hospice, named after the patron saint of travellers, as a place in which to shelter on the most difficult stage of life's journey. Her unorthodox views were published as The care of the dying (London, Macmillan & Co) in 1960. This opened many eyes, and soon another edition was needed. There followed years of hard work, lecturing, persuading and fund-raising. St Christopher's was set up as a charity in 1961 and the hospice was opened in 1967. That her methods worked was soon apparent and before long Cicely was invited to join the consultant staff of St Thomas's and the London Hospital.

In 1980 she married Marian Bohusz-Szyszko who shared her love of music and with whom she was blissfully happy. Sadly he predeceased her in 1995. A tall, impressive lady, she had a tremendous though quiet personality that shone with honesty and wisdom. Innumerable distinctions and honours came her way - honorary degrees and fellowships galore, the gold medals of the Society of Apothecaries and the British Medical Association, the DBE and the Order of Merit - but it was the establishment of hundreds of hospices according to her principles and the revolution in the care of the dying that will be the real measure of her greatness. She died from breast cancer on 14 July 2005 at St Christopher's.

Sources used to compile this entry: [BMJ 2005 331 238, with portrait; Who's Who; The Times 15 July 2005.].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England