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14 October 2023

Cicely Saunders International welcomes new Life President and Chair

John McGrath has stepped down as Chair and Trustee to become a Life President of Cicely Saunders International, alongside former Trustee Christopher Saunders. The charity’s new Chair is Trustee Kate Kirk, a niece of Dame Cicely Saunders.

Kate Kirk and John McGrath

After 22 years at the helm of Cicely Saunders International, John McGrath has stepped down as Chair and Trustee to become a Life President of the charity, alongside former Trustee Christopher Saunders. The charity’s new Chair is Trustee Kate Kirk, a niece of Dame Cicely Saunders.

How Cicely Saunders International began

In 2001, palliative care pioneer Dame Cicely Saunders recognised that treatments for those with terminal or life-limiting conditions were being introduced with little evidence of their effectiveness. She also knew that there was a major lack of clinical training in specialist palliative care. Dame Cicely and a group including John McGrath, the late Sir Richard Giordano, Sir David Walker and Sir David Simon came together and created the Cicely Saunders Foundation, a palliative care charity now known as Cicely Saunders International.

John McGrath's role 

John McGrath became Chair of the new charity in 2001 and started fundraising for palliative care research and training. He was in the process of stepping down from senior management positions in business and brought with him a wealth of experience from roles such as Director of ITV plc, Chair of The Boots Company and Group Chief Executive of Diageo plc. He was introduced to palliative care by his colleague at Grand Metropolitan, Richard Giordano, who met Cicely Saunders in the 1970s when he was raising funds for Calvary Hospice in New York.

Initially, the research funded by the charity focused on the management of breathlessness, a particularly distressing yet often neglected symptom, and home-based palliative care. It quickly became clear that what was really needed was a research institute that would transform palliative care by acting as a hub for integrating research-based evidence into clinical practice and service delivery. £10 million pounds was raised and the Cicely Saunders Institute of Palliative Care was established in partnership with King’s College London. The Institute, situated in the grounds of King’s College Hospital, was officially opened by Her Royal Highness Princess Anne in May 2010. It is the world’s first purpose-built centre for palliative care integrating research with clinical care and education, and is a designated World Health Organization Collaborating Centre.

Looking to the future

Cicely Saunders International continues to fund research and training in all aspects of palliative care. The charity works closely with the Institute to support its development, assisted by a panel of international scientific experts. The Institute provides training to people across the UK and internationally in palliative care, building much needed capacity and skills, as well as building the evidence needed to improve not only care, but also related health policy.

John McCrath said: “I met Cicely in 2000, and after just an hour chatting with her, I committed to help carry on her amazing work into the future. We’ve come a long way since Irene Higginson, Dick Giordano and I agreed with Dame Cicely Saunders that we should establish the charity Cicely Saunders International and carry on the research that she had started at St Christopher’s Hospice. After more than 20 years as Chair of Cicely Saunders International I’m now passing the baton to fellow Trustee Kate Kirk, Dame Cicely’s niece. I’m stepping down secure in the knowledge that with a new Chair and a fine group of Trustees alongside her the future is bright.”

Professor Irene Higginson, Scientific Director of Cicely Saunders International said: “John McGrath’s dynamic management was pivotal during the fundraising stage for the Cicely Saunders Institute. He skillfully led the partnership with King’s College London and ensured the construction of the Institute was finished on time and on budget. Many colleagues in my team have benefited, and continue to benefit enormously, from his wise counsel and his unceasing commitment to the work being carried out in palliative care. I believe that he demonstrates superbly the value of lending business acumen to the voluntary sector.”

Without John McGrath’s involvement in Cicely Saunders International, without his drive and commitment, the Institute might well not have come into existence and certainly would not have made the outstanding progress of the last ten years. Because of his passion and dedication, the Institute has grown from a cold start to a position where its contributions to the way palliative care is viewed and carried out are recognised around the world. But we cannot afford to relax. We must use the firm foundations that John and others with his vision have created to build towards a world where high quality palliative care is available to all who need it.”

Kate Kirk, new Chair of Cicely Saunders International

In this story

Irene Higginson

Executive Dean, Florence Nightingale Faculty of Nursing, Midwifery & Palliative Care