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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?


8th February 2018 Jane Hand will deliver the paper 'Health on the High Street: Consumerism and the NHS in Britain since the 1970s' at the Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland at University College Dublin.

5th-7th June 2018 Jenny Crane will present with Drs Ellen Stewart and Alix Green on their work on hospital closures, at the conference, 'The social life of time: power, discrimination and transformation', Edinburgh.

21st July 2018 The team will participate in an NHS Heritage Day at the Black Country Living Museum.

Alongside our People’s History of the NHS website we will be running a series of public events. 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.