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A peerless GP who helped to build the NHS

17 September, 2020 — By John Gulliver

Lord Rea: A special kind of Kentish Towner

LORD Nick Rea, a memorable family doctor, who died recently at 92, was a special kind of a Kentish Towner, truly a pillar of society.

He would be known to thousands of patients in Camden, having served at the Caversham and later James Wigg practices since the late 1950s – and loved for his sense of humour and sympathy.

Typical of the man, who was in my opinion a socialist humanist, he agonised for years over taking over his hereditary seat in the Lords – and was eventually persuaded to do so after meeting Tony Benn, the MP Joan Lestor and the anti-war leader Fenner Brockway.

Ultimately, he served for more than 40 years in the Lords, promoting public health and was even a front bench Labour spokesman for a short time.

He died on June 1 amid the lockdown freeze and got bare notices by the obituarists. This week the British Medical Journal gave him a special notice in recognition of his special status in the pages of post-war medical history.

He was educated at the progressive school at Dartington and after qualifying in medicine at Cambridge and later University College Hospital he joined the Caversham practice.

Later, he left for a short time to work in Nigeria because he had not seen enough of the world. On his return he worked at the James Wigg, retiring in 1993.

Typical of his taste for fun and humour, he once got dressed up as Lenin with his wife Judith as Emmeline Pankhurst, bearing the placard, “Beware Blair!”

I met him only once, at a memorial meeting a couple of years ago for a fellow GP, June Horder, and was immediately struck by an aura of quiet reserve and sense of agreeableness about him. I spoke to him a few times after that over the phone, and grew to like him even more.

He was of that special generation of post-war idealistic and enthusiastic humanist medical practitioners – the professionals, often missed out by historians, who concentrate on Bevan and fellow left-wing MPs as architects of the National Health Service – when in fact the foundation was also laid by these doctors and their predecessors of the 1930s.

He obviously believed in the power of public health – how relevant that is today as the government toys with something they are completely out of their depth with.

And he was among those medics, though they may not have been aware of their role in history, who pioneered the creation of two practices, Caversham and James Wigg, that set a template for surgeries in the capital.

He was what I regard as an English socialist, with its history and philosophy steeped in the centuries from the peasant unrest of the 14th century, the later Revolution of the 17th century, the Chartist Movement – and which can suddenly flower in eruptions today such as the Black Lives Matter movement.

Deeply honest, he knew his goal had not been reached, that the world he would want to see was still elusive, but he carried his hopes with him, making something special of James Wigg and Caversham.

I wonder what the young doctors at these practices today think – or even know, for that matter – of the men and women who created these historically unique surgeries more than 60 years ago.


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