A little under three months ago, I wrote that 2014 was the year when I started cobbling together a career for myself, having given up on the fantasy someone would simply hand one to me. Yet that is more-or-less what’s happened since. Earlier this year, in the middle of a draining mania of job applications, the idea of staying put and taking on a three-year research role was put to me. And I’m happy to say I’ll now be staying at the University of Warwick as a Research Fellow, making the Centre for the History of Medicine my academic home until the summer of 2018.
The Wellcome Trust has given generous funding to a major project on the Cultural History of the NHS being headed up by Dr Roberta Bivins and Professor Mathew Thomson. Moving beyond the political histories of the health service, this project will enter the realm of meaning and representation. It will explore the popular understanding of the NHS since it was founded in 1948, how the NHS and its staff have been represented over the years, and its role as an emblem of wider social values. Dr Jane Hand has been appointed to assist in getting the project up and running, and I will join in September. We’ll also be hiring at the end of this year, so keep an eye out for job adverts!
It’s a great project – and a great fit with my previous research. The book I’m putting the finishing touches to at the moment will explore Payment and Philanthropy in British Healthcare, 1918-1948, focusing on the only three decades in British history when it was the norm for hospital patients to make some form of payment to the institution where they received treatment. I’ll now be able to follow the story on, once a health service had been established on the principle of treatment provided free at the point of use. This notion has been central to how the NHS is commonly understood, yet it has never been absolute. Bevan’s resignation from Attlee’s cabinet in 1951 was in large part a response to the introduction of charges for glasses and dentures, and opening the door for prescription charges. The junior minister who resigned alongside Nye Bevan was Harold Wilson, who as Prime Minister had to reintroduce prescription charges in 1968 only three years after abolishing them. A decade later Barbara Castle was struggling to finally eliminate the last pay beds in NHS hospitals, before Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 election victory signaled the abandonment of the policy. Understanding the professional and public accommodation between the ‘free’ principle and its various transgressions is in many respects the next chapter on from the work I’ve done to date.
It’s the right position for me in a number of ways. Of course it’s a fixed-term position, but three years and hired nearly half-a-year ahead of the start date offers some much-needed stability and ability to plan ahead in the rest of my life. The prospect of three years solely dedicated to research after three years of intense teaching-only contracts offers a rebalancing of my CV that in the long run will make or break whatever career I might have in academia. It does mean I’ve had to step back from a shorter project, but it also means I can settle in to the new academic home I’ve found at Warwick. I’m thrilled to be working on a great project, under some senior colleagues I respect hugely, and in a department with a good many others too, ranging from truly innovative leading scholars to a dynamic crowd of research students. It’s a good home to have found.
There is and will be plenty of work to do. But, for now, I’m just pleased to be able to get on with it without a worrying portion of my energies distracted by job applications. For the first time in many years, I just saw an advert for a job I could apply for, but didn’t give it any thought at all. That’s a nice feeling.