Medicine And Books

The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy; Man and Wife: Richard and Kay Titmuss—My Parents' Early Years

BMJ 1997; 315 doi: (Published 15 November 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;315:1319
  1. Roy Porter
  1. professor of social history of medicine, Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, London

    The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy

    Richard M Titmuss Original edition with new chapters, eds Ann Oakley, John Ashton LSE Books, £14.99, pp 345 ISBN 0 7530 12014

    Man and Wife: Richard and Kay Titmuss—My Parents' Early Years

    Ann Oakley Flamingo, £7.99, pp 288 ISBN 0 00 655013 4

    With the eclipse of the politics of state socialism, Richard Titmuss has ceased to be a household name. But, for the postwar generation, he was one of the intellectual pillars of the welfare state, combining mastery of the statistics of poverty, inequality, and ill health with an impassioned philosophy of social justice. The Gift Relationship (1970), his last major work and now available once more in a welcome updated reprint, is vintage Titmuss: the model of the British National Blood Transfusion Service is commended not merely because giving rather than selling blood fosters social altruism but because (as his abundant figures show)it also makes for an efficient system.

    Titmuss is himself the object of inquiry in a thoughtful and moving book by Professor Ann Oakley—sociologist, feminist, and, what is here most germane, his daughter. Why, she asks, did her father became so renowned whereas her mother, Kay, is utterly forgotten?

    Things might have been different. Middle class and older than Richard, Kay (born Kathleen Miller) had soaked up the ideals of social service; from the early 1930s she immersed herself in practical social work, administering charities for the poor and unemployed. Dick, by contrast, came from a less favoured background;receiving “no education to speak of,” he was sent out to work at an early age in an insurance office (that was where he picked up his statistics), “improving himself” in his spare time and turning himself into a political animal.

    What then happened, of course, was that Kathleen Miller became Mrs Titmuss: that proved decisive. With the steadfast support of a loyal wife and the “refuge” of a semi in Acton, Titmuss went from strength to strength, publishing prolifically, hobnobbing with the great and the good, getting a chair at the London School of Economics (the first professor in this country to have had no higher education), and living to turn down a life peerage from Harold Wilson. Kay meanwhile disappeared into the shadows. It was Richard who became her work—“She was amanuensis, typist, social secretary, librarian, bibliographer, proof-reader and research assistant, as well as wife and housewife” (and mother too, of course). In public she put on a brave face and was proud to be the silent woman behind a great man, but in the privacy of letters and diaries, which she bequeathed to her daughter, a different story is hinted at: one phrase that appears is “the discontented dishwasher.” No feminist, she also regretted never becoming Lady Titmuss.

    Writing as their daughter, Ann Oakley recalls experiencing her mother's thwarted talents being channelled into the roles of a puritanical and dispirited housewife and mother. Putting on her sociologist's hat, she sets her parents in their own times. Their gendered division of labour (husband/wife, public man/private woman, breadwinner/mother) was not only typical of the times but was positively built into the welfarist social policies that Titmuss was promoting. Did it never occur to her father and mother, Oakley asks, that the egalitarian goals they espoused had a crucial blind spot and fatal flaw—the unquestioned disparity of the male-female relationship?

    There were, of course, exceptions to this rule—mid—century intellectual and professional couples in which the wife kept her own name and continued with her own work—Enid Charles and Lancelot Hogben, for instance. Some of these numbered among her parents' friends. So why were her own mum and dad so conventional? It was probably, Oakley speculates, because Richard Titmuss was obsessed with the “population problem.” The birth rate (he believed) was dipping dangerously. It was essential to encourage families and dedicated motherhood. Yet again there lurks an irony: like so many of their successful contemporaries, her parents had only one child, herself (they had hoped not for an Ann but an Adrian).

    Read alongside her earlier autobiography, Taking it Like a Woman (1984), Ann Oakley's Man and Wife, combining as it does personal memoir and sociology, is honest, heartfelt, and eye opening. It has many lessons for us.

    Rating: ****, ****

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