A Sociological Autobiography: 62 – My Peers

By | September 14, 2016

I have written briefly about a few medical sociologists who, early on, played an important part in my career. George Brown and Margot Jefferys were the senior protagonists, Dave Blane, Ray Fitzpatrick and Paul Higgs their successors. This may be the moment to add to this cast. This is an easy and pleasant task because most of my teaching peers ‘belonged’ – a term that resonates with today’s identity theorists – to a defensive formation based in London’s medical schools. We got together to teach, share horror stories about our persecution and, via the University of London’s Special Advisory Committee on Sociology Applied to Medicine (SACSAM) (Margot was its inaugural chair), fight back or at least resist.

So who was involved? Some, like Sue Thorne, an epidemiologist and activist based at St Thomas’, disappeared quite quickly. Peter Draper was another. Sue’s companion at St Thomas’ in those heady days of sociology’s introduction into the pre-clinical medical curriculum was Donald Patrick, senior lecturer and occupant of a status midway between George and Margot and the rest of us. It was Donald who led our campaign to publish the first textbook in sociology as applied to medicine (SAM). David Armstrong, a Guy’s man, opted out of our venture to nip into the market just before us with a lucid volume so slim that I later offered to include it as an appendix to later editions of SAM. Donald was a phlegmatic and easy-going character with whom I enjoyed collaborating. I well remember when we all met to finalize the details of SAM’s first edition (published in 1982). David Locker, also from St Thomas’, clearly fancied joining Donald as co-editor; but I had done all the preliminary work with Donald and, perhaps unusually for me at that time, held my ground.

Donald Patrick migrated to the USA where he became a prolific researcher and writer, notably on outcomes in health policy, ending up in the School of Public Health at the University of Washington. David Locker, qualified in dentistry as well as sociology, was also to migrate – to the Faculty of Dentistry at Toronto University in 1985. I always felt there was an edge to my relationship with David, perhaps dating back to that textbook stand off, but I may be wrong. He was a pioneer, publishing two particularly influential texts, Disability and Disadvantage and Behavioural Sciences and Dentistry. He died prematurely in 2010, by which time we were in touch again and, I’m pleased to say, entirely reconciled.

If I recall correctly, it was David Armstrong who prevailed on me to teach on the London University’s intercalated B.Sc in Sociology as Applied to Medicine for medical students. I owe him: it was a delightful and protracted episode. Like Dave Blane, this other David (never a Dave), had qualified as a doctor and come to medical sociology via the M.Sc course run by Margot and George at what was then Bedford College. He was at this time committed to Durkheim with all the religious fervour he was later to devote to Foucault (it was the latter’s Discipline and Punish that triggered the revelatory switch). Not everyone got, and gets, David’s dry, ironic and often challenging humour; indeed, it has occasionally been experienced as an assault. But this has never bothered me (and I am grateful to this high-paid, proud member of the bourgeoisie for describing me only a couple of weeks ago to Alex Broom from Sydney as a ‘dangerous Marxist’). Above all, I appreciate David’s enthusiasm and his role as a catalyst introducing Foucault’s books to neophyte and unsuspecting British medical sociologists, originally in his The Political Anatomy of the Body. I am embarrassed to note the sheer productivity of Donald Patrick, David Locker and David Armstrong.

Sheila Hillier, based at St Barts, was another early colleague. An LSE graduate, she taught on the Bedford College M.Sc and specialized for a time on traditional healthcare in China and, later, on the health of ethnic minorities. She was actually the first sociologist to be appointed to a chair in a medical school, in 1992. She is now a visiting professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Sheila possessed, and I’m sure possesses, a calm Margot-like assurance that has served her well chairing numerous committees. Remarkably, she has now reinvented herself as a poet of repute. She started writing poetry back in 2001 and published her first collection, A Quechua Confession, in 2010. I read her second collection, Hotel Moonmilk, and was more than impressed. I am no literary critic but I think she is a very real new talent.

Who’s next? When I left Charing Cross HMS for the Middlesex HMS in 1978 I was replaced by Karl Figlio. The pairing of Dave Blane with Karl was a source of amusement to the rest of us. Chalk and cheese: Dave ‘the doc’ Blane sought to apply his literal reading of Marx’s tomes with its application in the real world of capital versus wage-labour conflict and tension via the SWP and his role as an ASTMS shop steward, while Karl was wedded to theory and debate, one is tempted to say for its own sake. It would be wrong to say that Karl was other-worldly as he went on to commit to psychoanalysis, ending up at the Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies at the University of Essex, but his considerable talents were then drawn to abstruse ends. I remember him at MedSoc in York discussing the merits Habermas’ offering, Knowledge and Human Interests.

I met Mary Boulton before she met Ray Fitzpatrick, when we were both Ph.D students of George Brown. Appointed initially to a lectureship at St Mary’s, in 1999 she migrated to a chair at Oxford Brookes. Everything about Mary is impressively orderly, from her appearance and self-presentation to her teaching, administrative and research portfolios. She is an organized person. Like Sheila, she has served and serves on – and I am sure graced and graces – many a committee. Scanning her CV I am struck, as I often seem to be, by the productivity of these friends and colleagues of mine. I wonder if my relative tardiness is a function of my preferred style of work. Solitary endeavour has its handicaps: a failure to learn from colleagues and the time-bound constraints of sole-authorship.

Everybody likes Myfanwy Morgan, and rightly so. She epitomizes collegiality. Yet another apprentice of St Thomas’, she ended up in Primary Care and Public Health Sciences at KCL. Much of her research has been focused on people with long-term illnesses, but I well recall that she was quick off the mark in 1988 in penning with Mike Calnan and Nick Manning a path-breaking textbook called Sociological Approaches to Health and Medicine. I know from many a private discussion that there was no more popular promotion than Myfanwy’s belated award of a chair at KCL. Never mind the sociology, she is just a thoroughly decent person and colleague.

Charlotte Humphreys started off at the Royal Free, veering later to KCL. When she, Myfanwy and Nicky Britten joined me for a handful of seminars on social theory I was reminded just what a forceful and independent mind she has. Self-deprecatory and inclined to present as under-achieving she may be, but don’t be fooled: this is a Humphreys to be as reckoned with every much as any of her kin. Like Sheila and Mary she excelled at committee work. Possibly I appreciate this outlet for talent because I have ‘admin’ whenever possible; but recognize it I do. Charlotte is also the agent for ex-SACSAM social gatherings, which we all welcome. Maybe she too will excel in a second career, as a glass-blower if my memory serves me right.

It is difficult to believe that yet another of my peers served his apprenticeship at St Thomas’ (the strict Walter Holland – he banged on staff doors at 9am to see who was in his or her office) must have got something right). Nick, Mays sociological son of a celebrated sociological father at John Moores University in Liverpool, taught Durkheim on our intercalated B.Sc. After serving time at the King’s Fund as Director of Health Services Research, he adjourned to the London School of Hygiene. He is of course an authoritative researcher and adviser on healthcare policy and healthcare systems at home and abroad.

Nicky Britten secured her BA in mathematics at Oxford University in 1975. Seeing the light, she got her Ph.D in sociology in 1996. KCL yet again provided a platform (I’ve learned something writing this). Nicky’s quiet demeanor hides a feisty and combative self. I have seen her in action. She has made her mark in empirical research on prescribing (see her Medicines and Society). Her passion is articulated in carefully constructed research projects and publications, but without being compromised. She is now in Exeter, displaying all those qualities of leadership and innovation that I for some reason eschewed. Her research in professional and policy sociology verges on what I have come to call ‘action sociology’.

Graham Hart has entered and exited my career at crucial moments. I recall his appointment in 1986 at as lecturer at the Middlesex HMS, not least because when I visited him I had diffidently to enter the building that housed the STI clinic. His credentials were impeccable (first class honours from Leicester). I was on the committee that in 2006 brought him back from Sally Macintyre’s Unit in Glasgow as a UCL professor. There was no stopping him thereafter. A record of HIV research behind him, he trod confidently onto the admin escalator, hopefully impressing even his parents in the process. As we shall see, he became my head of department in somewhat trying circumstances (for me) and was instrumental in supporting me in the years leading to my retirement. He was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Population Sciences at UCL in 2011. I don’t understand why he wanted to do this but, as a beneficiary, I’m not equivocating.

There are more I could have mentioned, but these were my primary SACSAM peers. The ‘familiarity bonds’ have remained strong, at least for me. I could have written about others, like Ellie Scrivens, a noted policy expert and another who died too young; or Mel Bartley, whom I’ve known for decades but who ended up at UCL as a health inequalities researcher rather than a teacher. I will return I’m sure to Dave Blane, Ray Fitzpatrick, Paul Higgs and Fiona Stevenson who also ‘belong’ in this fragment.

What is particularly pleasurable is that all those whose profiles I have sketched here can be celebrated. Professors all! Those I have mentioned are smart, productive babyboomers who belie any accusation that we had it too easy. What talent, what peers!

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