NHS75: Introducing Lord Moran, the man who won over early opposition to the NHS

Trust archivist Kevin Brown shares how Charles Wilson, later Lord Moran, a consultant physician at St Mary’s Hospital, was instrumental in gaining support from the medical profession for the creation of the NHS.

Early opposition to the NHS

It seems unbelievable now but before the NHS was established in 1948, there was some opposition to it from older members of the medical profession who felt that their status was threatened by a state funded, universal medical system and resented being treated as civil servants under a system of state medicine. Many GPs also feared the loss of their independence and income if the state took over. While many younger doctors were enthusiastic supporters of a national health service, some of their older colleagues had to be won over if the new system of healthcare was to work.

Introducing Charles Wilson, later Lord Moran

Charles Wilson, a consultant physician at St Mary’s Hospital, who became Lord Moran in 1943, was to play an important role in achieving this by acting as a buffer in the delicate negotiations between the British Medical Association and Ministry of Health.

Lord Moran was not only president of Royal College of Physicians (1941-50) but, as dean of St Mary’s Hospital Medical School (1920-45), had revitalised a failing medical school that was on the verge of closure by erecting new buildings and recruiting a new type of medical student who would be an ‘intellectual athlete.’ It was said that he would interview medical students by throwing them a rugby ball and they were sure of a place if they caught it. Other hospitals accused him of waylaying prospective students at Paddington Station if he suspected them of being good sportsmen. He was also remarkably successful in fundraising for the building of a new medical school, calling on the support of such wealthy patients as the newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook who also donated a rugby ground at Teddington.

However, he is perhaps best known for his role as Winston Churchill’s doctor. He had accompanied the prime minister on his wartime journeys to attend to his medical needs, though it was unkindly said of him by John Colville, Churchill’s secretary, that he was never actually present on any historic occasions but was always invited to lunch afterwards. When he published his diaries in 1966, Winston Churchill: the Struggle for Survivals, after the death of his most famous patient, he was criticised for breeching patient confidentiality due to the inclusion of the revelation that he had treated Churchill after a stroke in 1953, which had been kept secret from the public while Churchill continued as prime minister.

Winning over the opposition

With such a background he had honed the political skills and deviousness that were to be so useful in persuading the medical profession to support the new NHS and earn him the nickname of ‘Corkscrew Charlie’. Moran recognised the need to work closely with Aneurin Bevan, the minister of health to negotiate the best terms possible for the medical profession, despite fierce opposition from some of his consultant colleagues. He said that ‘I felt that we should have a much greater say in things if we could establish a friendly approach to the minister, for he had a way of dividing the world in to those who were for him and those who were against him’.

It was his powerful advocacy of the merit awards for consultants, based on quality of patient care, that was to make many of them finally accept the NHS and he played a major role in setting up the Spens Committee for Consultants and Specialists in 1948 which decided on the remuneration of hospital consultants, later chairing the government standing committee which set the payment of specialists from 1949 to 1961. Bevan later claimed that his success in gaining the support of consultants was ‘by stuffing the doctors’ mouths with gold’ though Moran’s pragmatism and willingness to compromise also played an important role as well as a willingness by the government to allow them to keep their prized independence and often lucrative private practices even under government control of the hospitals.

In summary

Moran was at the centre of the political conflict between consultants and general practitioners. He was much less sympathetic towards GPs whom he considered to have fallen off the specialist ladder on their way to becoming hospital consultants, though many of his former students were to become notably capable and sympathetic GPs because he encouraged them to develop as all-rounders.

Lord Moran was a controversial figure with as many opponents as admirers, but he certainly made an impact on the acceptance of the NHS by the medical profession who with all other staff have made it what it is.

Find out how we’re celebrating the NHS’ 75 birthday at the Trust.