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27 September 2023

Celebrating Dame Cicely Saunders – a window into the life of a palliative care pioneer

Dame Cicely Saunders OM DBE (Nursing, 1914; Medicine, 1957) was a nurse, social worker, physician, and King’s alumna, best known for revolutionising end-of-life care.

Cicely Saunders SaundersK_PP149_9_1_13_CS_and_nurse001 CSI 780x450

When World War II broke out, Saunders was inspired to become a nurse, and trained at St Thomas’ hospital. After the war she studied social work at Oxford University, before returning to her King’s and GKT (Guy’s, King’s, and St Thomas’) roots and qualifying as a doctor in 1957.

Transforming the lives of palliative care patients

While training as a medical social worker, Cicely Saunders met David Tasma, a Polish-Jewish refugee and cancer patient. The two developed a close bond within a matter of weeks. When Tasma passed away, he left Saunders £500 in his will, along with one final request:

‘Let me be a window in your home.’

Sure enough, Dame Cicely honoured David’s wish. Nearly 20 years later, she set up St Christopher’s Hospice. At the entrance, she installed a window in memory of David Tasma and his generous parting gift.

Shaping the future for palliative care

Inspired by interactions with her patients, Cicely devoted herself to improving end-of-life care. In 2002 she established the Cicely Saunders Foundation (which would later evolve into the Cicely Saunders Institute), bringing together exceptional researchers, clinicians, and educators in palliative care.

I was in a very bad state before I came to the Cicely Saunders Institute. I was thinking about how I was about to die...but now I know I can handle this.

A palliative care patient

Cicely passed away from breast cancer in 2005. However, her extraordinary legacy and contribution to end-of-life care live on through the Cicely Saunders Institute.

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