Britain's famed National Health Service celebrated its 70th anniversary last year. The bedrock of the institution has always been black nurses and medical staff but their contribution has not yet received the recognition it deserves.
In a year of significant anniversaries --for which I cannot recall another like it--one has stood out above all others. Seventy years ago on 5 July 1948, Aneurin Bevan, Minister of Health in the reforming administration of Clement Attlee, launched the National Health Service. Such was its importance that it has framed our lives ever since. The NHS was founded to meet the needs of everyone, to be free at the point of delivery, and to be based on clinical need rather than the ability to pay.
It is the pride of all Britons, whatever their age, class, religion or ethnic heritage, which politicians may threaten to disband only at their peril, and it would not have been possible without the considerable contribution of African / West Indian doctors, nurses and auxiliary staff.
Its establishment was a huge task requiring a labour force that was exceptional in both quantity and quality, for which the UK government launched a vigorous recruitment drive in its then colonies.
As well as men answering a similar call in the transport, construction and motor-building sectors, women and girls made their way to Britain, often meeting their own travel and accommodation costs, to take up a career in nursing. Even when immigration from the Commonwealth was restricted severely from 1962, the then minister of health, Enoch Powell, made a special plea for trainee nurses to still be admitted.
Nursing had not always enjoyed a good reputation, despite the high honour accorded now to Jamaican pioneer Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale. Those attending the wounded and dying in the imperial/ continental wars, being drawn from the most deprived social orders, were looked upon as being little more than drunks, sluts and thieves.
It was probably the only way they could endure the horrific sights and conditions. That attitude started to change when middle-class and even aristocratic women volunteered to serve on the wards in WW1.
Yet it took the arrival of the Africans/West Indians to raise the profession to the high respect it enjoys today. Sadly, they did not always receive a ready welcome from the people they had come to help. The older generation, particularly, doubted that black nurses could achieve the standards and qualifications of...