Starting to write a new biography of Cicely Saunders

Published on: Author: David Clark 17 Comments
handwritten notes written by David Clark in preparation for a biography of Cicely Saunders

I’ve just embarked upon writing a new book – so far so good. It is to be 150,000 words long – a  little daunting. It’s a biography –  I have never written one before.

The feeling is scary and at the same time exhilarating. The first paragraphs and pages are beginning to form. The idea has been with me for a couple of decades, but now the moment has arrived and I want it to be a great experience.

I hope this blog post, with some background, will encourage you to join me on this ‘biographer’s journey’. And maybe you’ll offer a little help and encouragement as I proceed.

The book is about the life and work of Cicely Saunders – the inspiration and founder of so much that has occurred in the modern hospice and palliative care movement over the past 50 years.

My story goes back to the mid-1990s when I was working at the University of Sheffield, linked with the Trent Palliative Care Centre. It was at that time I became conscious of the emerging and unexplored history surrounding the development of hospices in Britain

I approached Cicely Saunders and asked her for help. She had created St Christopher’s, the first ‘modern’ hospice in Britain and remained a towering figure of inspiration to many in the rapidly developing field of palliative care. She wrote a letter of support which I appended to a grant application to the Wellcome Trust, seeking funds to undertake some oral history interviews with British hospice founders. The application was successful and Neil Small joined me in the process of selecting people for interview and then recording their stories in detail.

Neil and I started by interviewing Cicely Saunders and then moved on to interview other key figures in the field, using the ‘snowball’ sampling method. Our visits to St Christopher’s soon uncovered a vast collection of papers and records, which its founder had carefully held onto from the earliest days of her encounter with the idea of hospice.

I began the work of cataloguing these records and ensuring their safety for posterity. In time I edited some of the papers into two volumes for Oxford University Press: one of Cicely Saunders’ selected letters; the other of her selected publications.  All of her papers are now fully catalogued and available from  Kings College London Archives.

Whilst preparing these two books I began to realise that a third volume should complete the set. This would be a new biography, building on a first offering from Shirley du Boulay from 1984, as well as my own growing knowledge of and fascination with my subject.

In August 1999 I embarked upon a series of interviews with Dr Saunders, at her home, with the idea of a posthumous biography in mind. As I explained to her, echoing a beer advertisement of the time, I wanted ‘to reach the parts that other interviewers hadn’t reached’.

We met regularly on many occasions and the interviews carried on until March 2005, just a few months before her death.

In the years that followed I continued my research interests in palliative care. From time to time I would be asked airily by friends and colleagues “how’s the Saunders’ biography coming on?” I would smile uneasily and say I was still pondering how to approach it, waiting to clear some space, and so on and so forth.

In truth, I knew that it was too early for the work to begin. Dr Saunders’ death was still fresh in the minds of many. But I also felt too close to her, too much identified with her papers and contribution. I needed time to work out how to approach her biography. She began to sit on my shoulder, unobtrusively, but a fairly constant reminder of the work I had promised her I would undertake.

I changed jobs, got away from the palliative care research coal face and in 2009 moved into University management. I continued to write about palliative care, but from a greater distance, no longer involved in the daily round and politics of the field. I finished a book about the Project on Death in America. I completed another on the history of palliative medicine from the nineteenth century, To Comfort Always, which will be published later this year.

As my period of management duties was coming to a close, I was fortunate enough to win a Wellcome Trust Investigator Award. I then postponed a sabbatical year, my reward for those years as Director of the University of Glasgow Dumfries Campus. The Wellcome Trust-funded project was well underway. I could start my period of sabbatical.

Now I hoped to have more time to think, to reflect, and in due course to return to the idea of the biography.

So this is where I am in May 2016. I have a supportive editor in Andrea Knobloch in the New York office of Oxford University Press. I have a clear timeline. Publication in June 2018 will exactly coincide with the centenary of Cicely Saunders’ birth.

The writing has finally begun and as it moves forward I will share my progress, struggles and some of the insights gained. I hope you will join me on this next adventure, and that you’ll offer your suggestions and ideas along the way.

David Clark

Categories: Cicely Saunders, To Comfort Always (book)

David Clark

David Clark holds a Wellcome Trust Investigator Award and leads the Global Interventions at the End of Life research project. He is Professor of Medical Sociology at the University of Glasgow and founder of the Glasgow End of Life Studies Group. Follow David on Twitter @dumfriesshire

17 Responses to Starting to write a new biography of Cicely Saunders Comments (RSS) Comments (RSS)

  1. Wishing you the very best with your writing and I look forward to reading future blog posts.
    I am carrying out an autoethnographic doctoral thesis ‘My mum’s last breath: a counsellor’s exploration of being with death’ at The University of Edinburgh and enjoy the blog posts. My mum was a Matie Curie nurse a great supporter of hospice and palliative care and benefitted from hospice care from her colleagues at the end of her own life.

    • Thanks for your kind comments Ruth. Your own work sounds fascinating at so many levels – personal, professional, historical. Good luck with it and do feel free to share things with us. All good wishes David C

  2. Great that it will be published in June 2018, David – an appropriate goal to aim for!!

    Lots of good wishes for the project

  3. I am fascinated to know more about the life and work of Cicely Saunders and I wish you great good fortune as the book progresses. As president of IMmortal Foundation, a recently formed nonprofit looking to expand consciousness about end-of-life issues, I feel that palliative care is often misrepresented or misunderstood so how and why it developed into a modern compassionate care system deserves to be much better known.

    • Thanks for your supportive words and reflections Leszek. Look out for my book on the history of palliative medicine – To Comfort Always – which will be published by Oxford University Press in the autumn. Kind regards David C

  4. I started working in an Edinburgh hospice in the mid 1980s. I retire in two weeks time on my 30th anniversary. My mantra has always been Cicely Saunders ‘hospice is a philosophy not a facility’. It’s is never more relevant and your biography should be required reading for anyone in hospice care. Best wishes for the book.
    Louise.

    • Dear Louise, congratulations on a fantastic achievement. I wonder if I could record your story some time? We need to capture it for posterity. Have a great last few weeks and thanks for your kind remarks abou the biography. David C

  5. David,
    So pleased to hear that you are finally settling to the next, and large, phase of the work that you have spoken and written about with such passion over many years. I’m sure that you will send up a quiet request to the spirit of Dame Cicely to ‘Watch with Me’ on the journey. Good luck!

    • It’s nice to hear from you John and thank you for these words of encouragement. It does feel like a huge task but it is reassuring that others are walking the journey with me. All good wishes
      David

  6. I heard the radio 4 programme yesterday and would now love to read the autobiography when you have completed it. Best wishes for your endeavours over the next couple of years

    • Thank you for your encouraging words Pradeep! I am pressing on with the writing. The book will not be published until June 2018 – which will be exactly 100 years after the birth of Cicely Saunders. I will be happy to discuss with you how it could be translated eventually – it would be a huge task – around 150,000 words.

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