History of the National Health Service

Anenurin Bevan Minister of Health, on the first day of the_National Health Service, 5 July 1948 at Park Hospital, Davyhulme, near Manchester
Anenurin Bevan, founder of the NHS, on the first day of the National Health Service on 5 July, 1948. Credit: Creative Commons

The National Health Service was founded on 5 July 1948 and now faces its biggest challenge yet. Emily Pringle looks back through the history of our nation’s treasured NHS

Our historical tour of the National Health Service begins in 1948…

The National Health Service (NHS) was founded by Health Secretary Aneurin Bevan in 1948. Bevan stated in 1952 that “the collective principle asserts that […] no society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means”. Bevan’s NHS vision was high quality, free and sustainable healthcare to all who required it.

Despite Bevan’s NHS not being entirely free, prior to 1948, healthcare was incredibly expensive. Bevan’s innovative NHS was funded under the National Insurance Act of 1911. This meant that the NHS was funded by taxpayers who would pay a proportionate amount from their wages each week. This small fee granted them access to ‘free’ healthcare. However, unfortunately, as women and children did often not earn a wage, and husbands and fathers tax contributions did not extend to their families, women and children were originally not covered by the new NHS.


The first NHS hospital, built in 1926, was originally called Park Hospital. It treated the first ever NHS patient on 5 July 1948, 13-year-old Sylvia Diggory. Diggory subsequently returned to the hospital in 1988 to unveil the hospital’s new name, Trafford General Hospital.


By 1952, the NHS was in full swing. With the majority of hospitals now being funded by the NHS, the amount of money that the service required had increased. Therefore, 1952 saw the introduction of the one shilling charge for prescriptions. This charge was abolished in 1965 on moral grounds, but reinstated in 1968, and still remains to this day.


In 1958, a range of vaccines were introduced in order to limit how much the NHS was costing the government. Vaccinations against diseases such as polio and diphtheria were introduced to prevent the spread of disease.


1959 saw the NHS’s introduction of The Mental Health Act. This act allowed people who suffered from mental health problems, for the first time, to be treated as people with physical illnesses would be treated.


The first kidney transplant took place at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary on 30 October 1960.


In 1961, the contraceptive pill was launched by the NHS. However this was, until 1967, only available for married women.


Continuing the NHS’s success, 1962 saw the beginning of a drastic expansion of NHS hospitals. Enoch Powell brought about his hospital plan, which approved the building of hospitals in areas with a population above 125,000.


1968 was the year of the NHS’s first heart transplant, which was unfortunately unsuccessful. As a result, there were only half a dozen heart transplants attempted by the NHS in the next 10 years. The first successful heart transplant on the NHS was not until 1979.


In 1972, Godfrey Newbold Hounsfield’s CT scanner was brought into practice by the NHS. The Nobel Prize-winning design allowed the NHS to scan patients in the most effective way to date.


The NHS funded an incredible scientific advancement: Louise Brown became the first child to be conceived by In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF).


The 1980s saw a decade of intense medical advancement. Along with the successful introduction of keyhole surgery into general practice, this decade also saw the invention of the MRI scanner, which is able to scan for slightly less obtuse illnesses than the CT scanner.


In 1988 the NHS introduced free mammograms to women over 50, an attempt to reduce the risk of breast cancer.


1994 saw the way in which the NHS conducted organ transplantation change drastically. A database of willing organ donors proved a great success, with twelve million people registering by 2005.


In 1998, NHS Direct, a telephone service that provided health information for patients, was introduced: a system that was a far more efficient way to handle health worries that were not urgent enough for the patient to contact 999.


The government’s introduction of the Smoking Ban in public areas also began to gradually reduce second-hand-smoke damage to their patients.


The NHS celebrates their 70th anniversary of providing excellent, and free, healthcare to the public of the United Kingdom.


The NHS treats over a million patients every thirty-six hours as standard, but the coronavirus sweeping the nation poses the greatest challenge yet to this great healthcare service. The government has called for 250,000 volunteers to relieve pressure by reaching vulnerable people self-isolating at home. To date, 750,000 volunteers have signed up.