Object of the Month – August 2013

Dr Edith Summerskill presenting a bottle of National Health Service orange juice to a mother and child, 1950 (NMLH.LP Photo Collection)

Edith Summerskill was Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food from 1945 – 1950; a junior ministerial position which supported the Minister of Food. After Labour’s slim victory in the 1950 election, Prime Minister Clement Attlee promoted Summerskill to Minister of National Insurance and Industrial Injuries. In 1918 she had been admitted to Charing Cross Hospital Medical School, and qualified as a Doctor in 1924, a rare occurrence for the period.  Her politics and work were closely interlinked. Sumerskill was a founder in the 1930s of the Socialist Medical Association (SMA) a body affiliated to the Labour Party, who sought in Summerskill’s own words to ‘prepare a blue print for the National Health Service.’ She campaigned strongly against boxing, outlining her arguments in the book The Ignoble Art, and in 1970 took part in a TV debate on the merits of sport with the popular heavyweight Henry Cooper.

Britain after 1945 was an austere place. Many food stuffs continued to be rationed – they would be until the 4th July, 1954 – and undernourishment was a serious problem. One response was to introduce a range of vitamin-loaded food supplements for children. Apart from concentrated orange juice, high in Vitamin C, there was NHS bottled cod liver oil, and jars of malt syrup. The orange juice was held to be good for boils.

This image of Summerskill handing a plump child vitamin rich orange juice visually encapsulates her post war priorities as a feminist and Labour minister. It was not just children for whom Summerskill worked. She was an ardent feminist, one who campaigned for women’s interests in 1950s Britain.  She demanded better health care and diet, birth-control advice for young less-privileged mothers and wanted to alleviate the pressures on the mother in the ‘baby-boom’, of post-war Britain. Summerskill rightly saw these as the first priority for many exhausted and anaemic working class mothers.

Summerskill’s feminism was outlined in Letters to my Daughter published 1956.  In it she outlined the importance of true equality for women. ‘What is woman’s work and what is man’s should be determined solely by the aptitude of the individual, and it is the interest of the family and of the country that this new approach should be adopted.’ She also argued in many respects women were better than men; longer life and propensity for pain her proof. ‘All the evidence’ Summerskill wrote ‘goes to show, then, that while there is biological dissimilarity between the male and the female, this does not denote that male is superior; indeed it could be argued from the above that the reverse is the case.’

Edith Summerskill was MP for Fulham West from 1938-1955 and MP for Warrington from 1955-1961 and elevated to the Lords in 1961.