More about Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of the hospice movement

When thinking about how much palliative care has become a part of our lives, it’s difficult to imagine that it has only existed in its current form for 55 years. The remarkable woman who started the very first formal hospice care facility was Dame Cicely Saunders. She established St Christopher’s Hospice in South London, being moved to do so after having lost two people dear to her heart to terminal disease.

Dame Saunders is widely considered the founder of the modern hospice movement, and did groundbreaking work in the field of palliative care.

Nurse, social worker and physician

Dame Saunders initially studied to be a nurse, completing her nursing training at the Nightingale School of Nursing. Little would Dame Cicely Saunders know that she, too, would be amongst the most well known female medical professionals in history. After a back injury, Saunders completed a degree in social work in 1945, and realised at the age of 33 that if she really wanted to change the concept of pain management, she would have to become a qualified doctor. This combination of skills would prove invaluable later.

The life of Dame Saunders was changed by one of her dying patients, a Polish-Jewish refugee who had a life-threatening cancer. He talked about death and the care of the dying, telling her what he and people like him needed. It was this experience that planted the seed of offering holistic care that addresses the complete needs of the patient.

After losing a second partner, Antoni Michniewicz, while researching pain control, and also losing her father shortly after that, Saunders fell into what she referred to as “pathological grieving” – although Michniewicz’s death taught her that “as the body becomes weaker, so the spirit becomes stronger”.

Dame Cicely Saunders was the first person to introduce the term “total pain” into the medical vocabulary. It refers to the physical, emotional, social and spiritual distress a patient may experience, and forms the bedrock of what hospice care caters for.

St Christopher’s Hospice opened its doors in 1967, and was the first of hundreds of thousands of similar palliative care providers established to offer holistic care to patients around the world.

Dame Cicely Saunders died of breast cancer at St Christopher’s Hospice in 2005, after devoting her life to the development of holistic care to those with life-limiting illnesses, and significantly contributing to the field of medical ethics. The principles laid down by Saunders are still the principles according to which hospice care is provided today, and this trailblazer’s legacy is immeasurable.

HospiceWits is proud to offer palliative care services to patients in and around Johannesburg. To learn more about our hospice care, click here.