The BMJ Awards 2018: Outstanding Contribution to HealthBMJ 2018; 361 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k2011 (Published 10 May 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;361:k2011
Wendy Savage always has a new campaign up her sleeve. “If I get a call at 8 30 am on a Saturday morning, it’ll be Wendy saying, ‘I’ve got this fantastic idea,’” says Melanie Davies, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at University College London Hospitals. “She’s an inveterate campaigner—it’s her raison d’etre.”
It’s this campaigning spirit, particularly on the NHS and women’s rights, that make Wendy Savage a worthy winner of this year’s The BMJ Award for Outstanding Contribution to Health.
Jacky Davis, the consultant radiologist who, with Savage, started the campaign Keep our NHS Public in 2005, knows her well but admits she has no idea of half of what she does. Her quality, she says, is absolute fearlessness. “She’s been involved in lots of organisations, including the GMC and the BMA, and she’s achieved what she has by challenging the medical establishment. She will speak truth to power.”
Her unflinching nature was forged in 1985 when she was the victim of an attempt to unseat her from her position as senior lecturer in obstetrics at the (then) London Hospital. What started as a difference over style and attitude quickly turned into allegations of incompetence, and two trials began: one of innuendo and whispers, the other a full judicial inquiry set up under a procedure to investigate serious professional malpractice.
Famously, she won. The charges against her were dismissed. “I’ve always been pretty determined,” says Savage today. “It was stupid to take on somebody like me.” But the publicity, which was enormous, brought her wider recognition, even if it left a residual feeling that she was a difficult woman. “You had to be quite brave to say you were a friend of Wendy Savage,” says Davies. “A lot of really effective people are quite difficult—they’ve got that inner strength, they don’t really care what anyone else thinks or says.”
Savage’s return to work might have daunted lesser spirits. “I was hated by the NHS part timers,” she says, referring to those at the London with private practices. “They wouldn’t speak to me. One of them saw me in the car park one day and, rather than travelling in the same lift, walked all the way round the hospital to the other entrance. Another berated me for talking to his wife at a Christmas party. Yet I never really understood why we disagreed. It left me amazed.”
She stuck it out, working mostly at Mile End Hospital where obstetric services were based. Huge support from local women and GPs during the dispute would have made it impossible to leave them in the lurch, she says. When she retired, Davies remembers, her valedictory meeting wasn’t held at the London, but at a neutral venue. “I was asked to speak about her impact on medicine and I gave a talk about heroism, because to me she is a heroic figure. She stood alone in the face of criticism where other people would have crumbled.”
Savage was born in 1935 in south London and brought up mostly in Woldingham in Surrey. She went to Croydon High School for Girls on a sixth form bursary and then to Girton College Cambridge, the first of her family to go to university, where she was captain of hockey and also swam for the university. She started medical training at London Hospital Medical College in 1957.
Qualified, she then spent most of the next 15 years working abroad. Her husband, an educational researcher working for a US organisation, was based in Africa developing a syllabus for science teaching in primary schools. She worked initially in Boston, then in Nigeria and Kenya, while having four children.
In the early 1970s she got a job in the US, working for a service for poor women in east Boston. “I didn’t mean to come back to England,” she says, “but I didn’t realise that the man who was organising the Boston job was having a nervous breakdown. It fell through.” So instead she went to New Zealand with the children—“We were used to travelling” she says airily—where she stayed for three years.
Back in England she was appointed to a senior lecturer post at the London by Peter Huntingford, still remembered as a charismatic obstetrician. “It’s unusual to get a job at a London teaching hospital when you haven’t had a conventional route up,” says Davies. “Wendy had four children but she never went part time, it didn’t exist in her day. Peter was quite exceptional, but when he retired a new professor came in and that’s when trouble started.”
Savage has been involved with countless organisations, both before and after the trouble. Her house in Islington was at the centre of a web of interests mostly centred around women gaining power over their own bodies in birth control, abortion, and obstetrics.
Jacky Davis says: “It’s very difficult to get something like Keep The NHS Public off the ground, but Wendy was always there, she did a lot of public speaking, she ran the campaign out of her house, her secretary was immediately devoted to the campaign. She is a very generous woman, generous with her time and generous with resources.”
Looking back, Savage believes that obstetrics and gynaecology is much better than it was, with far more women appointed, but questions the reforms of the GMC which have reduced representation and made it more corporate. She despairs of the position of junior doctors “who are just supposed to get on with it with no support.” She is delighted that, at the fourth attempt, the BMA voted at last year’s Annual Representative Meeting that abortion should be taken out of the criminal law.
At 83, is she thinking of slowing down? Not really. After 16 years on the BMA Council, she’s thinking of standing again. And she probably will.
The awards ceremony took place on 10 May at the Park Plaza Hotel, Westminster. To find out more go to thebmjawards.bmj.com.