Dr Thérèse Vanier – pioneer of palliative care in Europe

David Oliviere, Social Worker and former Director of Education at St Christopher’s Hospice, London, UK, and Avril Jackson, Information Officer, European Association for Palliative Care, reflect on the unique contribution of Dr Thérèse Vanier who died on 16 June 2014 in London, aged 91.

Dr Thérèse Vanier at St Christopher's French Conference 1987. Following Therese's inspiration, the authors continued to organise a two-day French Conference until 2013.

Dr Thérèse Vanier at St Christopher’s French Conference 1987. Following Dr Vanier’s original idea and inspiration, the authors of this post continued to organise a two-day French Conference until 2013.

Who was the originator of palliative care in mainland Europe? Many qualify for this accolade and Thérèse Vanier would never have put herself forward. But it was through her diligent work that the seeds of modern hospice and palliative care were sown, particularly in French-speaking countries such as France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland.

Thérèse was the eldest child and only daughter of Georges and Pauline Vanier, a French Canadian family. During World War Two she joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, and the Free French resistance organisation, as a result of which she was awarded the ‘Croix de Guerre’ from the French government. She went on to study medicine at Cambridge, England.

A contemporary of Cicely Saunders at St Thomas’s medical school, London, Thérèse was the first woman to be appointed to the consultant staff (haematologist) at St Thomas’s Hospital. She then worked as part-time consultant at St Christopher’s Hospice from 1972 to 1988. As the work of St Christopher’s and the ‘total pain, total care’ model was getting known from the early 1970s, the hospice received many requests for visits and talks. As interest in palliative care developed in French-speaking countries on mainland Europe and in Quebec, Thérèse, French-speaking and excellent teacher, travelled repeatedly responding to invitations to lecture and taking part in television programmes, debates and panel discussions. She responded to the challenging questions of those hearing about hospice and palliative care: Was it killing people; when to treat or not; was it a religious thing; how to control suffering? Sounds familiar?

Responding to requests from French-speaking colleagues for visits to St Christopher’s, Thérèse introduced study days that were conducted entirely in French. Uptake was considerable and in 1987 Dr Michèle Salamagne, one of the leaders in French palliative care, suggested a two-day conference in recognition of the advances in palliative care in France. Remarkably these conferences continued long after Thérèse’s retirement in 1988; as Dr Salamagne, points out in her tribute to Thérèse: “They have helped hundreds of Francophone caregivers to get alongside the flagship team of St Christopher’s.”

Throughout her early medical career, Thérèse was a frequent visitor to the first L’Arche community, founded by her brother, Jean Vanier, in France in 1964. (L’Arche provides communities around the world for people with disabilities and their assistants). And it was Thérèse, practical, capable and quietly determined, who finally brought L’Arche to the UK in 1973, combining leadership of the fledgling L’Arche with her work at St Christopher’s.

Unassuming and gentle, wise and simple in reaching the truth, constantly searching for justice in the service to the most vulnerable in society, Thérèse Vanier’s deep commitment was to humanity.

«S’il n’y a plus rien à faire, tout reste à faire. »
(When there is nothing more that can be done, everything can still be done.)

She stands as one of the army of clinicians and practitioners around the world, just getting on with the day-to-day work of looking after patients and families and yet delivering a substantial amount of teaching.


  • L’Arche Internationale  (accessed 24 June 2014).
  • Vanier T. Evaluation des soins palliatifs en phase terminale, Bull Cancer (Paris) 1986 73 (6) 690-693. (This article well reflects the sentiments expressed in the above quote).
  • Jackson A and Oliviere D Liens entre la France et La Grande Bretagne. In Salamagne et Thominet (eds) (forthcoming).

Pour lire un hommage en langue française à Thérèse Vanier
Dr Michèle Salamagne rend hommage à Thérèse Vanier dans un article paru sur le site de la Société Française d’Accompagnement et des Soins Palliatifs.



This entry was posted in INTERVIEWS & TRIBUTES and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Dr Thérèse Vanier – pioneer of palliative care in Europe

  1. Pingback: Dr Thérèse Vanier – pioneer of palliative care in Europe | EAPC Blog | All Things Palliative - Article Feed

  2. ‘… everything can still be done’, within these words Dr Thérèse Vanier wanted to combine the urgency and concreteness of Action | can be done | and the urgency and the concreteness of time | still | and the heart of this combination is ‘everything’. And this ‘everything’ is like a deep basket which asks for being filled. Filled with what is new, creative, wonderful. That time and space can be new pages on which we can write with children’s colourful pencils.
    Luisella Magnani

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