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The Cultural History of the NHS

For links to our publications, please scroll down. For more about the project itself, read on!



In 2018, Britain’s pioneering National Health Service turned seventy. In preceding decades, the NHS had 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 remained largely undeveloped before 2015. There was no history that addresses the realm of meaning, feelings, and representation, and none that responded 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, was remarkable, and in 2015, the Wellcome Trust awarded Principal Investigators Roberta Bivins and Mathew Thomson and their team of postdoctoral researchers an Investigator Award to produce the first major cultural histories of this subject.


Central to this cultural history of the NHS, and emerging from each of the four research strands they proposed, was the study of its meanings. The project as a whole responded to the powerful sense, as Lawson’s remark highlighted, that people in Britain ‘believe’ in the NHS.

However, we knew 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 (which you can access from the lists below) between 2015 and 2021 addressed these gaps in our understanding of the NHS, and explored the impacts of the NHS on British culture, identity, and health from 1948 to the present day, as the NHS responds to the effects of the global Covid pandemic.

Involving the Public

One part of our bigger academic project was the development of a website that collected personal stories and memories of the National Health Service from members of the public and NHS workers across the spectrum. The team gathered recollections of the NHS and what it meant and means to people via a series of public events and via our People's History of the NHS website. The complete collection of these stories are now available for researchers at the Modern Records Centre, based at the University of Warwick. A selection of them also informed our fantastic Voices of the NHS: A People's History comic book, created by artist Darryl Cunningham and freely available for download courtesy of the Wellcome Trust (CAUTION: it's a big file and may download slowly, but it's worth it!). We also curated the first (virtual) Museum of the NHS and produced entries for our highly idiosyncratic People's Encyclopaedia of the NHS drawing on suggestions offered to us by our public membership.

NHS poster

Research Questions

• How have the popular meanings of the NHS changed since 1948, and how have such 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?

Scholarly Publications

Roberta Bivins

Andrew Burchell (Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow)

(with Mathew Thomson), 'Composing Well-being: Mental Health and the Mass Observation Project in Twentieth-Century Britain', Social History of Medicine, 2021;, hkab104,

Jenny Crane (3 Year Public Engagement Fellow)

Hannah J. Elizabeth (Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow)

' "If it hadn't been for the doctor, I think I would have killed myself': Ensuring Adolescent Knowledge and Access to Healthcare in the Age of Gillick' in Jennifer Crane and Jane Hand, Posters, Protests, and Prescriptions: Cultural Histories of the National Health Service (Manchester University Press, forthcoming May 2022).

George Gosling (18 month Research Fellow)

Jane Hand (3 Year Research Fellow)

  • Jennifer Crane and Jane Hand, Posters, Protests, and Prescriptions: Cultural Histories of the National Health Service (Manchester University Press, forthcoming May 2022).
  • ‘Tucking in your tummy isn’t the answer!’: visualising obesity as a public health concern in 1970s and 1980s Britain’, in Mark Jackson and Martin Moore (eds) Balancing the Self: Medicine, Politics and the Regulation of Health in the Twentieth Century, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018).
  • ‘Marketing Margarine: Advertising, Gender and Healthy Eating in Britain from 1954-c.2000’, Contemporary British History 31:4 (2017), 477-500.

Natalie Mann (Natalie Linda Jones) (Public Engagement Fellow)

  • 'Breaking the frame: abortion under arrest in contemporary visual art?' Research Chapter in Jani McCutcheon and Fiona McGaughey, Research Handbook on Art and Law (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2020).

  • (with Nikki Godden-Rasul), 'Dying for our Biographies: The UK Abortion Act 1967'‘Dying for our Biographies: The 1967 Abortion Act’. Book chapter for Women’s Legal Landmarks edited collection, Hart Publishing (Bloomsbury), 2018.
  • ‘Hanging On: Reflections on Visual Reproduction and the UK 1967 Abortion Act’, Feminist Legal Studies, 25:3, November 2017.

Jack Saunders (3 Year Research Fellow)

Mathew Thomson (co-PI)

'Representation of the National Health Service in the Arts and Popular Culture', in Jennifer Crane and Jane Hand, Posters, Protests, and Prescriptions: Cultural Histories of the National Health Service (Manchester University Press, forthcoming May 2022).

(with Andrew Burchell), 'Composing Well-being: Mental Health and the Mass Observation Project in Twentieth-Century Britain', Social History of Medicine, 2021;, hkab104,

Content for Wider Audiences

The People's History of the NHS Website is chock full of blogs, encyclopaedia entries, museum galleries and curated museum objects exploring aspects of the NHS ranging from appointments to vaccinations, birth to old age, and public health to private medicine. Enjoy!

Other forms of public content (a selection!)

Roberta Bivins (co-PI)

Andrew Burchell (Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow)

Jenny Crane (3 Year Public Engagement Fellow)

Hannah Elizabeth (Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow)

George Gosling

Jane Hand (3 Year Research Fellow)

Natalie Mann (Public Engagement Fellow)

Jack Saunders (3 Year Research Fellow)

Mathew Thomson (co-PI)

NHS 70th Anniversary Events

1 June 2018 Jack Saunders will speak to the Masculinities in Twentieth Century Britain workshop on 1 June, on the subject of 'What the Lads Want and What the Girls Want: Differences in Gender and Representation in the Factory and in the Hospital, 1970-73'.

13th June 2018 Jenny Crane will speak at Brighton's Critical Histories symposium.

26 June 2018 Jenny Crane will be speaking about 'Mothers as Subjects, Objects, and Agents in Institutions and Communities, 1948-1990', at Warwick's Institute for Advanced Studies conference on Maternity in Prisons. More information will follow, here.

26 June 2018 Jane Hand will be contributing to a panel on film and the NHS as part of the British Film Institute's launch event to coincide with the publication of their new 'NHS on Film' Collection on the BFI Player at BFI Southbank.

28-29 June 2018 Jane Hand will be delivering a paper on health consumerism and the NHS at the 'Publics and their Health: Historical Perspectives, Future Directions' Conference, Institute for Historical Research, London.

6th July 2018 Roberta Bivins will speak at the National Archives in Kew on '"Seeing" and Selling the NHS at home and abroad', exploring American visions of the NHS and how and why Britain has responded to them from 1948 until today. The talk will be accompanied by an exhibition of some of the TNA's amazing visual and textual holdings on the NHS.

7th July 2018 Natalie Jones will be speaking to the Welsh People's History Society in Tredegar on NHS and Culture. This celebration of the NHS at 70 will be held in Bedwellty House, former headquarters of Tredegar Urban District Council where Aneurin Bevan spent his early political career as a local councillor. For more information, visit Llafur.

11-13 July 2018 The whole team (and friends!) will be presenting material from their research at the Society for the Social History of Medicine's biennial conference in Liverpool. We will present a panel on NHS anniversaries and memories, and papers on a range of other NHS linked topics.

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

25th July 2018 The team joins the Science Museum Lates team in London to explore the cultural and 'Medical Marvels' of the NHS. For updates, visit and info, visit Science Museum Lates.

July 2018 Dates TBA:

'People's History of the NHS' Workshop/Roadshow at Southwell Workhouse

'Screening Health and Welfare' Film Event, Exeter Central Library.

18-19th September 2018, Cultural Histories of National Health Care Conference, University of Warwick

26th October 2018 Roberta Bivins will speak about the NHS at the Royal College of Physicians' 500th Anniversary celebrations. For a peek at all their exciting events to celebrate this momentous anniversary, follow this link.

16 March 2019 Workshop on 'Building, Unbuilding, and Rebuilding the NHS', 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.