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The Cultural History of the NHS



In 2018, Britain’s pioneering National Health Service will be seventy years old. The NHS has been the subject of several major political and policy histories. Astonishingly, however, given the sheer scale of its impacts on local and regional communities, and on Britain’s national and international identity, the cultural history of this key institution of post-war British life remains largely undeveloped. There is no history that addresses the realm of meaning, feelings, and representation, and none that responds to Nigel Lawson’s striking observation that ‘the National Health Service is the closest thing the English have to a religion’. This neglect, highlighted in a major review of historiography to mark the 60th anniversary of the NHS, is remarkable. The Wellcome Trust Joint Investigator Award will enable Principal Investigators Roberta Bivins and Mathew Thomson and their team of postdoctoral researchers to produce the first major history of this subject.


Central to this cultural history of the NHS, and emerging from each of the four research strands we propose, will be study of its meanings. There is a powerful sense, as Lawson’s remark highlighted, that people ‘believe’ in the NHS.

However, we know little about the nature, meaning and implications of this belief; the degree to which it has differed across time, between social groups, or in the various regions and constituent nations of the United Kingdom, or the relationship between this belief and a history of often harsh criticism. Our research will address these gaps in our understanding of the NHS, and explore the impacts of the NHS on British culture, identity, and health from 1948 to the present day.

Get Involved

One part of our bigger academic project is the development of a website that collects your personal stories and memories of the National Health Service. We'd love to hear your recollections of the NHS and what it means to you. If you would like to participate in this part of our project please visit our People's History of the NHS website where you can tell us your stories, respond to calls for information, find out about public engagement events, and visit our Virtual Museum and People's Enclyopaedia of the NHS.

If you would like to contact us about public engagement you can reach us by email at

NHS poster

Research Questions

• How has the popular meaning of the NHS changed since 1948, and how have changes influenced public attitudes towards, responses to and feelings about the health services?
• To what extent have cultural representations of the NHS captured and inflected its unique position in British daily life?
• How has the NHS been perceived and represented by its own staff, trade unions and regulatory bodies?
• Has the NHS – as an institution and a resource, as well as an emblem of wider and deeper social beliefs -- changed British identity in identifiable and distinctive ways? Have ambitions to use the NHS as vehicle for the transmission of cultural norms been fulfilled or frustrated?


13 November 2016: Jack Saunders is speaking on work and emotions at the North American Conference on British Studies in Washington, DC.

22 November 2016: The NHS Team are hosting a Wikipedia Editathon with Alice White the Wikimedian-in-Residence at the Wellcome Trust.

22 November 2016: Jane Hand is speaking at a Film Evening on health information shorts at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

16 January 2017 'Cultural History of the NHS' team and project featured on BBC West Midlands's popular 'Inside Out West Midlands' programme. You can watch on iPlayer here (at about 20 minutes).

23 January 2017 Roberta Bivins joined Alan Milburn, David Lock, Ruth Carnall and others to answer Sonia Sodha's questions about NHS reform on Radio 4's 'Analysis'. Listen here!

Alongside our People’s History of the NHS website we will be running a series of public events. Eventually these events will reach across Britain, however in the next few months we will be concentrating our efforts in relation to our local area of Coventry and its surrounding region. News on upcoming events will follow soon. Please also contact us if you are interested in being involved in any such event or if you would like a member of our team to come to talk in your area.