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Cicely Mary Strode Saunders was born on 22 June 1918 in Barnet, London, the eldest child of an affluent family. She was educated at Roedean School, Brighton, from the age of 10. As a shy, tall girl she struggled to fit in at first, and this, she later said, made her sympathetic to people who were outsiders. She was initially turned down by Oxford University, but after studying at a crammer began a Politics, Philosophy and Economics degree at St Anne’s College. With the advent of the Second World War, Cicely became uneasy about devoting her time to study, and left Oxford in 1940 to train as a nurse at St Thomas’ Hospital, London, qualifying in 1944.

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Cicely Saunders’ certificate of qualification as a registered nurse issued by the General Nursing Council for England and Wales, 1944.   

Cicely felt she had “come home” as a nurse and finally found a profession where she fitted in. However, it was not to last, as a severe back problem forced her to give up the career shortly after qualifying, and she returned to Oxford where she applied herself to training as a lady almoner, or medical social worker, and qualified in 1947. It was during this period of her life that she discovered her faith in God and said it was “as if a switch had flipped”.

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David Tasma, c 1940

It was shortly afterwards that Cicely would meet a dying man who would have a profound effect on her life. David Tasma, a Polish Jewish refugee, who had fled the Warsaw Ghetto, worked as a waiter and at the age of forty felt he had achieved little in life. He and Cicely developed an intense friendship during the weeks he spent in Archway Hospital. It was this experience, where the idea of developing a dedicated home for the dying first germinated and which she discussed with David. He left her £500, and the prophecy, “I’ll be a window in your home”.

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Lord Thurlow, first Chairman of St Christopher’s, and Cicely Saunders ceremonially begin the building work on 22 March 1965

Cicely was now determined to assist the dying and began volunteering at St Luke’s, home for the dying in Bayswater. It was here, at the age of thirty three, that she decided to train as a doctor following the advice of the surgeon, Mr Norman Barrett, who told her to read medicine as it was ‘the doctors who desert the dying’. She qualified in 1957 and soon after took over a dual role studying pain management of the terminally ill at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington and assisting at St Joseph’s Hospice, Hackney, run by the Roman Catholic Sisters of Charity. Here she used her medical expertise and research findings to help the nuns improve their standard of care. She developed record-keeping methods on 1100 patients, introducing a punch-card system. Notably, she wrote six articles on care of the dying in Nursing Times in 1959: they generated huge interest and were favourably reviewed in the medical and popular press.

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Dr Cicely Saunders at St Christopher’s Hospice, c 1974

From 1959 onwards, Cicely began to lobby, fundraise and plan for the building of a modern hospice based on a commitment to clinical care, teaching and research. She lectured and toured in the United Kingdom and United States promoting her ideas and by 1966 had received over £400,000 to start building in Sydenham, South-East London. St Christopher’s Hospice was opened on 24 July 1967 with Cicely Saunders serving as the Medical Director, a position she held until 1985.

Whilst at St Christopher’s, she quickly expanded its services to include home care, promoted clinical studies of pain control, championed evaluation of the hospice’s work, and developed a centre for specialist education. She continued to lecture and published regularly, including Care of the Dying (1960), Living with Dying (1983) and Beyond the Horizon: a search for meaning in suffering (1990).

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Cicely and her husband, Marian Bohusz-Szyszko [image retrieved from St Christopher’s Hospice website]

In 1963, she met her future husband, Marian Bohusz-Szyszko (1901-1995), a Polish émigré painter, after seeing one of his paintings at a London gallery. When St Christopher’s opened he became the artist in residence and in 1980 they married, the same year she received her DBE. Cicely retired from her role as Medical Director in 1985 and became Chairman until 2000, when she took the role of President in order to dedicate more time to the establishment of Cicely Saunders International, a charity to promote care and treatment of all patients with progressive illness. Among her many awards and honours was the largest humanitarian award in the world, the Conrad N Hilton Prize of one million dollars, presented in 2001. She developed breast cancer in her final years and died peacefully on Thursday 14 July 2005 at St Christopher’s Hospice.

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Cicely Saunders receiving the Lambeth Doctorate in Medicine from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Donald Coggan, 1977

For a more detailed biographical account of her work please see Cicely Saunders: The founder of the Modern Hospice Movement by Shirley du Boulay (originally published 1984, updated and revised in 2007 by Marianne Rankin) or read her own reflections on her career in Watch With Me: Inspiration for a life in hospice care, published by Observatory Publications in 2005 and available to read online via the following link: http://endoflifestudies.academicblogs.co.uk/open-access-to-watch-with-me-by-cicely-saunders/

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