Edith Summerskill, the youngest daughter of Dr William Summerskill (1866–1947) and his wife, Edith Clara Wilde, was born in Doughty Street, London, on 19th April 1901. As a child she accompanied her father on home visits and he told her about the connections between poverty and ill-health. Dr. Summerskill held left-wing political views and was a strong supporter of women's suffrage.
Edith was educated at Eltham Hill Grammar School and in 1918 won a place at King's College, where she studied medicine. Trained at Charing Cross Hospital she qualified as a doctor in 1924. The following year she married Dr. Edward Jeffrey Samuel (1895–1983).
In 1928 Edith and her husband established a joint medical practice in North London. In an interview she gave to BBC Radio 4 many years later, she recalled attending her first confinement as a newly qualified doctor. Shocked at the state of the home and the undernourishment of the mother, whose first child had rickets, she said "In that room that night, I became a socialist".
In 1930 Dr Charles Brook met Dr Ewald Fabian, the editor of Der Sozialistische Arzt and the head of Verbandes Sozialistischer Aerzte in Germany. Fabian said he was surprised that Britain did not have an organisation that represented socialists in the medical profession. Brook responded by arranging a meeting to take place on 21st September 1930 at the National Labour Club. As a result it was decided to form the Socialist Medical Association. Brook was appointed as Secretary of the SMA and Somerville Hastings, the Labour MP for Reading, became the first President. Other early members included Edith Summerskill, Hyacinth Morgan, Reginald Saxton, Alex Tudor-Hart, Archie Cochrane, Christopher Addison, John Baird, Alfred Salter, Barnett Stross, Robert Forgan and Richard Doll.
The Socialist Medical Association agreed a constitution in November 1930, "incorporating the basic aims of a socialised medical service, free and open to all, and the promotion of a high standard of health for the people of Britain". The SMA also committed itself to the dissemination of socialism within the medical profession. The SMA was open to all doctors and members of allied professions, such as dentists, nurses and pharmacists, who were socialists and subscribed to its aims. International links were established through the International Socialist Medical Association, based in Prague, an organisation that had been established by Dr Ewald Fabian.
In 1931 the SMA, after representations from Somerville Hastings and Charles Brook, became affiliated to the Labour Party. The following year, at its annual party conference, a resolution calling for a national health service to be an immediate priority of a Labour government was passed. The SMA also launched The Socialist Doctor journal in 1932. Summerskill was an active member of the SMA and as John Stewart, the author of The Battle for Health: A Political History of the Socialist Medical Association (1999), has pointed out, "she put forward the case for a socialized health service, and it was she who came up with the idea of organizing social events both to raise money and to attract publicity to the organization."
Summerskill, who was on the left-wing of the Labour Party, played an active role in supporting the Popular Front government during the Spanish Civil War. On 8th August 1936 it was decided to form a Spanish Medical Aid Committee. Dr. Christopher Addison was elected President and the Marchioness of Huntingdon agreed to become treasurer. Other supporters included Summerskill, Somerville Hastings, Charles Brook, Isabel Brown, Leah Manning, George Jeger, Philip D'Arcy Hart, Frederick Le Gros Clark, Lord Faringdon, Arthur Greenwood, George Lansbury, Victor Gollancz, D. N. Pritt, Archibald Sinclair, Rebecca West, William Temple, Tom Mann, Ben Tillett, Eleanor Rathbone, Julian Huxley, Harry Pollitt and Mary Redfern Davies. Summerskill was also involved in establishing The National Women's Appeal for Food for Spain.
John Stewart pointed out in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography that: "As a feminist, Summerskill paid particular attention to women's social and political issues. In the 1930s she was outspoken in her attacks on the prevailing high rate of maternal mortality and urged that the interests of the expectant mother must always be prioritized by the maternity services. She was especially critical of negligent doctors and inadequate provision, pointing out that a significant proportion of deaths in childbirth resulted from preventable, and hence unnecessary, infections. Unsurprisingly, this was related to broader claims for a publicly funded and administered health care service."
Summerskill was selected as the parliamentary candidate for Bury. In the 1935 General Election she was attacked by the Roman Catholic Church for her support for women's right to birth control. This contributed to her defeat and the following year she was was adopted as Labour Party candidate for the parliamentary constituency of Fulham West. Summerskill won the seat at a by-election in April 1938 and she now joined two other members of the SMA, Alfred Salter and Somerville Hastings, in the House of Commons. Later that year Summerskill was co-founder with Vera Brittain, Helena Normanton and Helen Nutting of the Married Women's Association. The organisation sought equal relationships between men and women in marriage.
During the Second World War the influence of Summerskill and the Socialist Medical Association increased. In October 1940, at the beginning of the Blitz, she told fellow MPs that the wartime organization of health services, and the impact of the war itself, had greatly and irreversibly changed the provision and perception of health care. Along with Somerville Hastings she was a member of Labour's advisory committee on public health, a body charged with formulating proposals for a national health service. In 1944 she became a member of Labour's national executive.
Summerskill was returned to the House of Commons at the 1945 General Election as MP for Fulham West. She was one of twelve SMA members elected and their was now a concerted effort to persuade the government to introduce a National Health Service. Hastings was considered too old to become Minister of Health but it was hoped that Clement Attlee would appoint another SMA member such as Edith Summerskill. However, Attlee rejected this advice and Aneurin Bevan was appointed instead.
Summerskill was appointed as parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Food. As John Stewart has pointed out: "This was always going to be a challenging position at a time of rationing and austerity - aspects of post-war life with which the British people were becoming increasingly disenchanted. Among her campaigns were those to make milk free from tuberculosis, an issue on which she could draw upon her medical knowledge."
In the 1950 Summerskill became minister of national insurance. However, she lost the post following Labour's defeat in the 1951 General Election. Over the next eight years she served on Labour's shadow cabinet. She was also a member of Labour's national executive and was party chairman in 1954–5. In 1956 was one of the platform speakers at Labour's famous Trafalgar Square rally against the Suez War.
In February 1961 Summerskill was made a life peeress. She was an active member of the House of Lords and her successful private member's bill, became the 1964 Married Women's Property Act. She also supported the reform of the law relating to homosexuality and for the legalization of abortion and campaigned against nuclear weapons and the American intervention in Vietnam. In 1967 she published her autobiography, A Woman's World.
Other historians have reached broadly similar conclusions. Honigsbaum describes at length what he sees as the "defeat" of SMA policies in the 1940s. Kenneth Morgan suggests that Bevan was "fully acquainted" with the Association's arguments, and then demonstrates how the Minister ignored most of them. He also, rather curiously, suggests that the SMA had "succeeded in forcing" its ideas on Labour Party conference in 1934; and makes the interesting remark that Bevan's own experiences had made him deeply sceptical of "the vested interests of middle-class pressure groups such as the medical profession". While it is clearly the BMA Morgan has in mind, it is worth speculating on how the working-class Bevan responded to advice - often unsolicited - given by the predominantly middle-class SMA.
Bevan's biographers, and that of his wife Jennie Lee, also help throw light on his relationship with the Association. Lee later recalled her partner's problems in persuading both parliament and his Labour colleagues of the merits of his health service plans. These problems were in part due, she claimed, to the public attacks by "hot-heads, led by the Socialist Medical Association". Bevan's private response was to see the demands of "Dr Stark Murray and his Socialist Medical Association colleagues" as "pure but impotent", a revealing comment from a politician at once highly principled and highly pragmatic. John Campbell suggests that Murray in particular "never forgave" the Labour Health Minister for his neglect of a key Association demand, health centres. Michael Foot, a great admirer of Bevan, has little to say directly about his relationship with the SMA, although he does claim that the Association's 1945 conference resolution was directed more against the actions of Conservative government ministers than it was to "the kind of service which a Labour government should consider". This, it might be argued, tells us as much about Foot's desire to let Bevan off the hook for ignoring established Labour policy as it does about the SMA.
Finally, Patricia Hollis, in her biography of Lee, sees Bevan as situated between the demands of the SMA, "which had drawn up Labour's health policies"; and those of the BMA. In the end, she continues, Bevan was probably right in his judgement that "most of these issues did not matter greatly", a telling remark on the importance of internal democracy in the Labour Party. Nonetheless Hollis also notes that Bevan's scheme had "heavy costs", for example in its administrative structures, but concludes that: "the
strain on Nye, and on Jennie, as he was denounced by the Socialist Medical Association for selling out, by the BMA for his despotic tendencies, by the Tories... and by his Cabinet colleagues for incurring the wrath of all of them, was immense."
In fact, the SMA well understood that any Health Minister faced in the BMA a powerful and politically well-connected pressure group. It had devoted considerable energy, especially post-Beveridge, to attacking what it saw as the main professional body's reactionary attitude, and this continued after the Labour government's election. An Association internal memorandum acknowledged that Bevan faced difficulties in dealing with "vested interests", and that this had been made worse by Willink's secret negotiations with the BMA. The White Paper was therefore no longer the basis on which to proceed, raising the possibility that Bevan would have to seek Cabinet agreement to new proposals "cutting right through all the previous discussions and difficulties". In consequence this might force the SMA to decide whether it could support a system not controlled by local authorities; in which doctors were remunerated using a capitation system; and in which private practice was allowed to continue. Given Bevan's plan, this was a prescient analysis of the dilemma the Association was soon to confront.
The main point, however, is that on taking up his ministerial post Bevan did not feel obliged to take particular heed of the SMA, despite its important contribution to Labour Party health policy up until 1945; and that this was something which, unsurprisingly, the Association increasingly saw as a flaw in the Minister's strategy. The National Health Service as set up by Bevan provided comprehensive and universal medical care, free at the point of consumption. The sale of GP practices was abolished; the hospitals were effectively nationalised, thereby both circumventing and doing away with the voluntary/municipal divide; and the system was financed out of general taxation rather than through an extended version of health insurance. All this was, by any standards, a huge and radical step forward in social welfare, and achieved by extremely demanding negotiations between Bevan and the medical profession right down to the Appointed Day. Bevan's political skill in these trying circumstances, particularly as he was also responsible for the housing programme, cannot be overstated.
On the other hand, the health services were not unified. A tripartite system was created, consisting of the hospital service (with the teaching hospitals having their own special status); general practice; and remaining local authority health functions. Unification and integration through democratically controlled local authorities was hence rejected. Within this complex system, private practice remained and salaried status for doctors abandoned in favour of remuneration by capitation. The majority of practitioners therefore continued as independent contractors. Furthermore, the medical profession (although not other health workers) exerted considerable power over the NHS, in terms of both administration and policy. This was at the expense of democratic control within the service and, arguably, by society as a whole.