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08 March 2018

Dame Cicely Saunders: A Palliative Care Pioneer

Cicely Saunders changed the way that the medical profession and society in general, viewed care for the dying.

Cicely Saunders

One of the most influential female figures of the 20th century, with a legacy which continues to affect how many of us will be cared for as we approach the end of life, is a woman whose name is still relatively obscure compared to female pioneers such as Marie Curie and Florence Nightingale. However, Dame Cicely Saunders changed the way that the medical profession, and society in general, viewed care for the dying at a time when the only treatment generally offered was pain relief. Cicely’s theory of ‘total pain’, incorporating a person’s physical, psychological, social, spiritual and practical needs, is reflected in the multi-disciplinary teams which now work together to provide person-centered care for patients at the end of life.

Dame Cicely Saunders was born a century ago, on 22 June 1918, and over the course of her life undertook a number of roles, as a nurse, medical social worker, doctor and research lead, in order to develop and deliver her vision of palliative care. Cicely realised that the care provided to people dying in hospitals left a lot to be desired; patients were often provided with inadequate pain relief and told that “there was nothing more that could be done”. This was a statement that Cicely was not prepared to accept, and she worked tirelessly to improve services for patients and their families whilst challenging the belief that prescribing palliative care to people with life-limiting conditions equated to ‘giving up’ on them.

St Christopher’s Hospice, which Cicely founded in 1967, is widely recognised as the first place to combine teaching and clinical research, pain and symptom control, and compassionate care. It was here that Cicely was able to develop the approach which has been adopted worldwide and continues to lie at the heart of care for the dying; that patients need spiritual, emotional and social support, as well as effective pain relief, at the end of life. In recognition of her significant services to the field of palliative care, Cicely was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1979 and awarded the Order of Merit in 1989.

Although Cicely died in 2005 at the hospice she founded, her life’s work of improving palliative care provision and support for people with progressive illness continues apace. She established the charity that would become Cicely Saunders International in 2002 and worked actively for the creation of a centre housing research, education, information provision and clinical care. In partnership with King’s College London, the Cicely Saunders Institute was built in 2010 and acts as a vital hub for academics, healthcare professionals, community organisations, patients and carers.

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is Press for Progress. An inspiring force for change and a natural leader, Cicely Saunders radically improved clinical practice for people at the end of life and paved the way for a more holistic model of person-centered care. Cicely’s legacy is still evident in hospital wards, care homes and hospices around the world, and can best be summarised by one of her most famous quotes: “You matter because you are you, and you matter to the end of your life. We will do all we can not only to help you die peacefully, but also to live until you die.”

To celebrate the centenary of Dame Cicely’s birth, the Cicely Saunders Institute is curating a series of events and online campaigns which celebrate her life and showcase the ongoing development of palliative medicine, both in the UK and internationally. Follow the @CSI_KCL Twitter account to keep up to date with all the latest news about the Cicely Centenary Celebration series or check out the dedicated series webpage.