A Sociological Autobiography: 17 – Margot Jefferys

By | September 29, 2013

I did not meet Margot Jefferys immediately on crossing the threshold at Bedford College in 1972. Based then in Peto Place, it was George Brown’s office I entered. But this was her Unit, and I came to know her well and to appreciate – no, more than that – the deftness of her political touch, her equanimity and her loyalty. Born in Madras in 1916, Margot arrived in England aged eight. She qualified in time as a economic historian, gaining a then rare ‘first’ at the LSE in 1938. Her first book was a study of the ‘anatomy’ of social and welfare services in, I think, Buckinghamshire. The then less troubled transition to sociology was confirmed by her appointment to the London School of Health and Tropical Medicine in 1953. Along with many others she left the CP in 1956 when the Soviet tanks crushed the Hungarian uprising. In 1965 she was made senior lecturer and Director of Social Research at Bedford College; and in 1968 she became the UK’s first ever Professor of Medical Sociology. The M.Sc in medical sociology that so many of my cohort of medical sociologists took was her initiative and began in 1969. But these are merely matters of chronology. Margot was a vital – in every sense of the word – catalyst for medical sociology’s emergence in the UK (aided and abetted by the likes of Raymond Illsley, her close friend Ann Cartwright and later George Brown and Margaret Stacey).

Margot had no need of display. She had a natural poise. She was a facilitator and fixer more for others than for herself. Her input into the Todd Commission on medical education helped secure my and others’ positions in medical schools through the 1970s. She had advocated not only the compulsory teaching of sociology (and psychology) to medical students, but, rightly or wrongly, the basing of this new breed of educators in medical schools rather than in a (Bedford College) sociology department. Her thinking: to be taken seriously we should be as fully integrated and as collegial as possible. It was a bold, imaginative and self-denying prescription. And I shall almost certainly return to its sequelae. She was no less influential in general practice, acting as chair of the BMA’s Working Group on Primary health Care, which reported in 1970.

Margot impacted on my career in two ways. First, she was the inaugural chair of the University of London’s ‘Special Advisory Committee in Sociology Applied to Medicine’ (SACSAM), a sub-committee of the University’s Medical Committee. Second, she responded positively to Dick Levinson’s request to host a six-week summer programme on ‘comparative health care’. Dick had brought a few ‘pred-med’ students from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, to London in 1975; now, he was looking for a more permanent deal. Little did he know! Margot was as receptive as ever (Americans loved her) and invited me, a hard-up Ph.D student and dad, to act as her intermediary. I tentatively stepped into this role in 1976 and over time became the London director, only relinquishing this responsibility in much-changed circumstances decades later.

What do I remember of Margot via these roles? It certainly took her a while to learn my name. I was and remained ‘Gordon’ for some time, in fact until the following exchange occurred: ‘Hello Gordon’, ‘Hello Margaret’, ‘My name’s Margot Gordon’, ‘And my name’s Graham Margot’! (I once overheard Anthony Hopkins address her as ‘Margaret Jenkins’, but she let that one pass.) I remember her with abiding affection. To me she was kind, a much under-rated quality. She nursed we sociologists in medical education through our wavering and self-doubts; and teaching sociology to medical students was no joke through the 1970s! As chair of SACSAM she initiated and tutored us in the politics of university committees with quiet eloquence. She did not seem Machiavellian, such were her skills. Was it Ivor Burton, Head of the Department of Sociology at Bedford College, who at her retirement ‘do’ acknowledged, not without irony, her ability to get what she wanted from the committees she attended without appearing either to exert herself or to provoke dispute? Ok, maybe she was Machiavellian enough not to appear so. Her ‘handling’ of others was diplomatically impeccable.

As far as the Emory University summer programme was concerned, she oversaw it during its neophyte years before eventually delegating it to me; and I was picked out initially because I had a family and needed the money. My own involvement was to last for 35 years, and the programme continues still. It was then and remained until I ‘resigned’ a six-week sojourn in London that introduced students, many of them aspiring physicians in the US, to a divergent – in their view more or less ‘socialized’ – health care system. It comprised classroom lectures/seminars, visits to health care facilities and, pre-eminently, 12-day placements or internships in settings linked to students’ visions of a future career. Via Margot, I was able to attract front-line academics like Brian Abel-Smith (who argued for a higher fee) and Michael Marmot, plus, from among my own cohort, David Armstrong, David Blane, Sheila Hillier, Charlotte Humphrey, Nick Mays and many others, as well as leading medical practitioners like Geoffrey Chamberlain and, of course, Anthony Hopkins. John Carrier from the LSE proved a mainstay and still teaches the first week of the programme well into a manically busy retirement. Margot taught a session for as long as she felt able to do so, well beyond her retirement in 1982, then gracefully withdrew. She continued to research and to show the hospitality to visiting academics for which she was renowned for some time. She died in March of 1999.


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