Scotland set to mark 70 years of the NHS

Falkirk Infirmary inside one of the wards
Falkirk Infirmary inside one of the wards

The NHS is set to become a septuagenarian on July 5 – with celebrations being staged across the country.

Like many pensioners of a similar age, the 70-year old institution may well have its aches, pains and pressures.

Falkirk Infirmary pictured in the 1920s

Falkirk Infirmary pictured in the 1920s

But there will still be much to celebrate when the grand old dame reaches its platinum birthday, not least the dedicated staff who ensure the wheels of the much-loved powerhouse continually turn.

Unfortunately, it’s a fact we who benefit from it most often take for granted.

So as we approach the 70th anniversary of its inception, we reflect on its history in Scotland this week while studying its milestones and innovations next week.

The NHS didn’t suddenly appear from nothing in Scotland on July 5, 1948.

Health Minister Nye Bevan merely nationalised the existing system across the UK with one revolutionary change – to make all services freely available to everyone.

Half of Scotland’s landmass was already covered by a state-funded health system – run from Edinburgh. And the Highlands and Islands Medical Service had been set up 35 years earlier.

In addition, the war years saw a state-funded hospital building programme in Scotland at a pace scarcely equalled anywhere in Europe, before or since.

It began in 1939 as a UK scheme for expected civilian casualties in air raids.

Seven new hospitals were constructed including Raigmore in Inverness, Bridge of Earn in Perthshire, and Killearn.

The anticipated casualties did not materialise but then Secretary of State, Tom Johnston, put the Emergency Hospital Service beds to good use. New specialities were established – seven orthopaedic centres with 2000 beds and a further 1300 for plastic surgery, eye injuries, psychoneurosis, and neurosurgery. Plus a pathology laboratory service and in 1940 the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Association was set up.

In total it provided an additional 20,500 in Scotland – a 60 per cent increase on present provision. Of these, 13,000 were later brought into the NHS.

So from severe pre-war bed shortages, Scotland by 1948 had a relative abundance – 15 per cent more beds per head of population than England and Wales. It also had 30 per cent more nurses and was better resourced for GPs.

In June 1933, Edward Cathcart, Professor of Physiology at Glasgow University, had been tasked with heading up a committee to review exisiting health services in Scotland and created the blueprint on a new GP-led, health promoting service in Scotland in the run up to 1948 .

Every family received a booklet ahead of the launch. On the front was the face of a reassuring doctor and a foreword from Secretary of 
State for Scotland Arthur Woodburn.

The booklet promised a family doctor for every member of the home; medicine, drugs and aids on a doctor’s prescription; dental services, including dentures; hearing tests and aids fitted free; eye tests 
and free spectacles with a choice of style; full treatment in general and specialist hospitals either as in-patient or out-patient.