Cicely Saunders – celebrating a centenary

This year’s 10th EAPC World Research Congress celebrates important milestones for palliative care in Europe and the world: 20 years of the EAPC Research Network, the 30th anniversary of the EAPC, as well as the commemoration of the 100th birthday of Dame Cicely Saunders. 

Today, David Clark, Wellcome Trust Investigator and Professor of Medical Sociology, University of Glasgow, UK, gives a glimpse of the plenary lecture that he will give at the congress in Bern on Saturday 26 May 2018 to salute the achievements of Cicely Saunders.

Professor David Clark

It was a cool, damp British summer when Cicely Saunders was born on 22 June 1918, in a modest family home in North London. The First World War was coming to an end but Europe was to remain a troubled place and global conflict was soon not far away again.

Despite these turbulent times, Cicely grew up in a family that was on an upward curve of prosperity. She and her two younger brothers attended private schools and each of them went on to study in ‘Oxbridge’ colleges.

Dame Cicely Saunders, OM, Founder and President of St Christopher’s Hospice. Photograph by Carolyn Djanogly. With kind permission of St Christopher’s Hospice.

But for Cicely, academic endeavour soon took second place to active service for others. She left Oxford, trained as a nurse and thus embarked upon a remarkable journey through the caring professions, as she moved into social work and eventually medicine. She qualified as a doctor in 1958 from St Thomas’s Hospital, opposite the Houses of Parliament on the banks of the river Thames.

Already, her clinical experience had drawn her more and more to the needs of dying people and their families. Some intense relationships with dying and chronically ill patients fuelled her sense of passion and commitment. She had become passionate about the need to understand and control pain.

As a newly qualified doctor she therefore chose to work as a research fellow in one of London’s original hospices for the dying – St Joseph’s, in Hackney. Here, she honed her skills and crafted a vision for a new approach to ‘terminal care’. Within a few years she launched a campaign to create St Christopher’s Hospice – a place where high-level clinical work would be underpinned by research and education in a new model of care.

She found a handful of fellow enthusiasts in Britain and around the world. Together they set in train a ‘quiet revolution’ that not only created a hospice ‘movement’, but also laid the foundations for modern palliative care.

Her life was rich in religious faith and in her wide-ranging interests in music, literature, and the visual arts. She had a determination to improve care at the end of life which was world-changing in its dimensions.

Cicely Saunders died in 2005. I was fortunate to work with her for the last decade of her life, editing her letters and papers and making provision for the full cataloguing of her papers. In my lecture at the EAPC Congress in Bern on 26 May, I will be describing and saluting her achievements. I will also be arguing for more attention to her enduring importance and exploring how she remains a source of inspiration and fascination today. There is much still to be understood about and to be learned from her.

I will draw on my newly completed biography – Cicely Saunders – a life and legacy, which is being published by Oxford University Press. The book will be ‘launched’ on 22 June in the hospice that Cicely founded – St Christopher’s, in Sydenham, South London – on the 100thanniversary of her birth.

10th EAPC World Research CongressProfessor David Clark will give his plenary lecture: On the centenary of Cicely Saunders’ birth – celebration, reflection and further possibilities, at 14h00 on Saturday 26 May at the 10thEAPC World Research Congress in Bern

View the abstract for David’s lecture, and all other abstracts for the 10th EAPC World Research Congress, in Palliative Medicine, volume: 32 issue: 1_suppl, page(s): 3-330.


  • Contact David Clark by email.
  • Twitter @dumfriesshire
  • The Glasgow End of Life Studies Group – looks at end of life issues from an interdisciplinary perspective.
  • Follow David’s daily posts and tweets on Facebook and Twitter commemorating the life and work of Cicely Saunders. A wonderful store of thoughts and events @dumfriesshire
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