A personal tribute
Some people never become superstars in their field yet make a massive impact. A good example is Dr Pamela Davies, who despite not being a household name, deserves recognition for her pioneering contributions to child health.
In the first half of the 20th century, conflicting recommendations were made to ensure that babies had the best chances for survival and of growing up into healthy children. These recommendations were not always based on sound evidence. Gradually the evidence grew however, and Dr Davies had a talent both for contributing to the scientific knowledge and shaping standard health care practice accordingly.
I had direct experience of this – in fact it is largely due to her work that I’m even around to write this. My early weeks were spent at Hammersmith Hospital after my twin sister and I were born ten weeks premature – weighing in at 3lbs 5oz and 2lbs 12oz. Traditionally, low weight, premature babies like us would not have been fed, and simply left to die. But Dr Davies showed such babies could be fed successfully – and argued that they should.
When she stopped working clinically, Dr Davies went on to lead the scientific advisory committee of the Foundation for the Study of Infant Death, now called the The Lullaby Trust. In 1991, the Foundation launched a highly effective public health campaign with a leaflet called Reduce the Risks of Cot Death. Some readers may remember its simple advice:
- Sleep the baby on the back
- Don’t smoke
- Prevent the baby from getting overheated
- Contact the doctor if you think the baby is unwell
The number of ‘cot deaths’ in the UK fell by half over the course of a year.
For the first eight or nine years of my life, I’d return to Hammersmith Hospital frequently for check-ups. Usually the trip down to London would combine visits to the hospital with some sight-seeing. Grim as the hospital itself appeared to me as a young child, I always enjoyed seeing Dr Davies.
I exchanged Christmas cards and letters with Dr Davies for as long as I can remember. Hers always came first – a UNICEF charity card arriving at the end of November. When I was a student she’d casually write that if I was in London, and fancied a square meal, I was to call in on her at her garden flat in Notting Hill Gate. Regrettably I never did. As I got into my 30s, I noticed the standard of her handwriting was deteriorating, old age kicking in. I wondered about visiting her, but always shied away.
The run up to Christmas 2007 heralded the usual Christmas card, only this time it arrived late – in fact I’d already sent her card before mine came. On opening it, I read a brief note, saying that she had undergone surgery for bowel cancer and was about to embark on chemotherapy for the secondary spread. Having bought a house in London not long before, there was now really no excuse not to go and see her. However, the card warned ‘Don’t think of visiting me… I’ll be in no fit state to receive visitors’.
My letter back to her was returned, marked undeliverable by the Post Office. Had she died? I thought about going to the funeral, and started googling her, to no avail. Her GMC entry still showed her as registered. Eventually I learned from obituaries that she died in May 2009 aged 85.
It was only after her death that I actually found out anything substantial about the Dr Davies I remembered from those childhood check-ups – both in terms of her professional and personal life. Obituaries in The Times, the Independent and the British Medical Journal taught me that Dr Davies was a paediatrician who specialised in caring for very young infants and an authority on infections in new-borns. She had been involved in work that dramatically changed prospects for premature babies: the feeding I mentioned earlier, as well as managing breathing problems faced by such babies.
From a generation where it was relatively unusual for women to have prominent professional/academic medical careers, Dr Davies knew both success and personal tragedy. Her fiancé, an RAF pilot, was killed during the Second World War. Apparently nobody else matched up to his standards, and she remained single. Yet this woman who didn’t form a family of her own had a radical impact on the lives of so many – including my own.