A Christmas letter from Cicely Saunders, 50 years ago today (22 December 1964)

Published on: Author: David Clark 6 Comments

One of the more pleasurable academic tasks I have ever undertaken was to edit the letters of Cicely Saunders, in a collection published by Oxford University Press, in 2002.  The volume of her selected letters (1959-99) contains some 700 pieces, chosen from over 7,000 to be found among her papers. I continue to enjoy dipping into the selection and never tire of  exploring her voluminous correspondence and wide-ranging circle of contacts.

To mark the Christmas period I went looking for something written at this time of year and found the following letter, sent to The Rev Almon R Pepper in the USA , exactly 50 years ago today. Almon Pepper (d 1973) was Director of the Department of Christian Social Relations at the Protestant Episcopal Church in New York.  Later he became a Vice-President of St Christopher’s Hospice and attended the opening ceremony in 1967. As we have seen elsewhere on this blog, Cicely Saunders made extensive visits to the USA at this time, and created enduring links and collaborations with a wide-range of like-minded colleagues. She had met Almon Pepper on her first vist to the US  in 1963, and writes to him here in some detail, on various topics.  It’s a typical Saunders letter of the period  – packed full of up to the minute news, wider reflections on current work in the field, and practical plans and travel arrangements.


22 December 1964, London

“I am afraid I am rather late with my Christmas letter to you and to your colleagues but this means I can now give you some wonderful news which came to St Christopher’s Hospice within the last few days. First of all however, may I wish you all a very happy Christmas and every good wish for 1965.

The news is really very exciting. On the 16th of December we heard that a fairly new Charitable Trust, the Sembal trust, was going to give us £22,686, the comprehensive cost of one of our six bed wards. We had hardly recovered from this when on the 18th December the Nuffield Foundation gave us a grant of £60,000 to cover the cost of our 14 bed ground floor ward. this is quite wonderful and of course , the name of the Nuffield Foundation will be extremely valuable in our next application for money. It has also come at an extremely opportune time because we are out to tender at the moment and should have replies from the builders to discuss at our next Council meeting early in February. If one is really satisfactory we will go straight ahead and sign the contract and start building.

At the same time some other plans are afoot. An extremely nice nurse, at the moment working as assistant Matron, is going to train as ou future Nursing research Officer. I am very anxious for her to have experience with the Narcotics Programme of the Veterans association in San Francisco and Rancho Los Amigos in Los Angeles. we have got a World health Organization Travelling Fellowship for her and are just completing the details of her programme. I am very anxious to come over again myself at the same time, both to introduce her to the workers in San Francisco ans to learn a little bit about the work there myself and also o course to meet my many friends of the last visit …

I have written to Dr Kelsey at the General Theological Seminary and i am going to write to Dr LeShan of the Programme in Religion and Psychiatry at the Union Theological Seminary. We have had some correspondence because I admire his papers about the psychosomatic aspect of cancer very much indeed and I am looking forward greatly to meeting him and some of his colleagues. Apart from this I have an invitation from Dr Molly Harrower of the Temple University Medical Center to speak to the Postgraduate Center for Mental Health and I am possibly getting one though the Reverend Robert reeves at the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.

While I am over there it also occurs to me that I might go ahead with an application to the Ford Foundation. Obviously we would have to begin doing this from this end but I have found every time that the best way to get money is to go ask people for it in person and I would like to think that I was able to go ahead with this also. Perhaps you have some ideas about this?

Please give my greetings to Mrs Munroe to everyone else I met and I greatly look forward to the possibility of meeting you again in 1965.”

St Christopher’s in the making

Exactly three months after this letter was written, building work got under way on the construction of St Christopher’s Hospice, in Sydenham, South London. The photograph here shows St Christopher’s Chairman, Lord Thurlow and Cicely Saunders herself on 22 March 1965, digging the first spit on the site.  As this one letter to Almon Pepper shows, the work was the product of assiduous fund-raising and grant writing. It was also strongly shaped by Anglo-American perspectives on the care of the dying – including approaches to pain relief, spiritual and psycho-social care and the organisation of services in non-publically funded settings. The recent success described in the letter indicate clearly that the St Christopher’s project was coming closer to realisation.

At the end of December 1964  the Beatles were riding high in the British pop charts with their  song ‘I feel fine’.  Cicely Saunders must have felt the same way.



Clark D (2002) Cicely Saunders. Founder of the Hospice Movement: Selected Letters 1959-1999. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp 397.


6 Responses to A Christmas letter from Cicely Saunders, 50 years ago today (22 December 1964) Comments (RSS) Comments (RSS)

  1. Excellent share! This letter highlights the importance of grants to help unleash creativity and innovation in health care. I only hope the next wave of hospice and palliative care is met with similar grants to accelerate change in the world.

    Keep blogging!

    Christian Sinclair, MD, FAAHPM
    Kansas City, KS
    Editor, Pallimed

    PS Blog link is dead in 2nd paragraph

  2. One of my aspirations is to document some of the interesting cases we discuss in our Hopsice Team meetings. Our Hospice Medical Director has encouraged this and I don’t know what format to use. I want to capture the dynamics of the unit of care and keep some of the memories alive.

    • Thanks Tamara. Maybe start with a very simple one page description of each example. Experiment with different formats. See what works best, what is sustainable? Brevity might be the key, with a photograph perhaps? Think about it from your own perspective – would you want to be remembered as an ‘interesting case’ or as a unique person?

  3. My father was Almon Pepper. He was always very excited about his work with Cicely Saunders. He described the “cocktail” she gave her patients including morphine and thought Americans would not be so tolerant. My husband now studies successful aging. Thank you for sharing the letter, it was a pleasure to find it.

    • It is wonderful to hear from you Mallory. There are further letters to and from your father in the Cicely Saunders’ archive which has recently been catalogued at Kings College London. Do please email me if you would like to get into further dicussion about this – david.clark.2@glasgow.ac.uk
      Kind wishes David Clark

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