Five facts about the NHS in 1961

by Dr Jenny Gilbert, BCLM Researcher

As part of our exciting Forging Ahead development project, we will be recreating Wolverhampton’s Lea Road Infant Welfare Centre. These centres were places where new and expectant mothers could go for support, advice and health assistance and their children could receive healthcare and vaccinations.

The building presents us with an exciting chance to tell the stories of mothers, children and, of course, the story of the NHS. July 2021 marks the 73rd anniversary of the founding of the NHS. Our recreation of Lea Road Infant Welfare Centre will be set in 1961 – a significant year in the history of the NHS. Birth rates in Wolverhampton had risen by 26% in a four year period. Attendance at infant and ante-natal clinics was also growing and Infant Welfare Centres were at the forefront of childhood vaccination programmes.

A historic photo of Lea Road Infant Welfare Centre in the background. A nurse character holding a baby is in the foreground.

60 years on, it is a good time to reflect on the NHS in the Black Country at the beginning of the swinging sixties. Here are five key healthcare happenings from 1961.

1. The Oral Contraceptive Pill was introduced… but only for married women

1961 has long been flagged as a landmark in the sexual emancipation of women. The introduction of the oral contraceptive pill is hailed as the beginnings of the ‘permissive society’ and for putting the swing into the swinging sixties. However, the Pill was initially only available for married women and it would take until 1967 for it to become available to all women. The introduction of the Pill also had a darker side. Key proponents of female birth control, such as the American activist Margaret Sanger, believed that contraception was a means of preventing the ‘unfit’ from having children.

A photo of an original bottle containing Enovid contraceptive pills.

Whilst there were (and remain) social and religious objections to the Pill, it was perhaps cost that troubled the British Conservative Government the most. At 17 shillings per month (approximately £17 today) there were concerns that the Pill would place huge financial strain on the Treasury who were already spending £90million per year on NHS drugs. Nevertheless, on 4th December 1961, it was confirmed that birth control pills would be made available on the NHS.

60 years on, the Pill is coming under closer scrutiny as growing numbers of women are raising concerns about its long term impacts and calls for a male equivalent grow louder. However, the transformative effects of the Pill on women’s lives and society cannot be underestimated. The ability to prevent unwanted pregnancy and take control of fertility was life changing for many women.

2. Enoch Powell was MP for Wolverhampton South West and Minister for Health when the Thalidomide crisis began

Enoch Powell became notorious for his racist rhetoric and deeply divisive Rivers of Blood speech, made in Birmingham in April 1968. Back in 1961, he was Conservative Member of Parliament for Wolverhampton South West and had been appointed Minister of Health in 1960.  Whilst his role in introducing the oral contraceptive can be viewed as, in some ways, progressive, Powell’s response to the beginnings of the Thalidomide crisis casts a shadow over his time in office.

Thalidomide was a drug prescribed to prevent morning sickness in pregnant women. It was introduced in the UK in 1958 and sold as Distaval. During the 1950s, there was little understanding as to how medications taken by a pregnant mother could affect the development of the foetus in the womb. It would later be discovered that Thalidomide harmed the foetus, causing issues in the development of limbs, the brain, eyesight and hearing.

In 1961, a letter from the Australian doctor William McBride was published in the medical journal, The Lancet. McBride explained how he had observed ‘multiple severe abnormalities’ in children born to mothers prescribed Thalidomide. As evidence against the drug mounted, Powell refused to engage with families effected by Thalidomide and ignored calls for a public enquiry into the drug. Even though the drug had been withdrawn by UK distributors in December 1961, a UK Government warning was not issued until May 1962. This meant that many mothers continued to take the drug, unaware of the risks.

3. The oral polio vaccine was introduced

Polio is a devastating virus that causes severe muscle weakness, paralysis and, in some cases, death. The virus has no cure – the only form of defence from Polio is vaccination. A vaccine for Polio has been available since 1956. Jonas Salk’s Inactive Polio Vaccine (IPV) was administered by injection and had been widely adopted across Britain. By June 1960 77% of British children had been vaccinated using IPV, though there had been some issues in encouraging adults to get the vaccine. Falling orders had prompted the producer of IPV, Pfizer, to withdraw from the British market so an alternative vaccine was sought. Demand amongst adults had risen after a series of epidemics in 1960/61, including an outbreak in West Bromwich.

A poster for the Polio vaccine. The title on the poster says "beat polio now. A dose on a sugar lump. Polio does not give a second chance. Be protected." There is a picture of a sugar lump on a spoon next to the title.

Albert Sabin’s Oral Polio Vaccine (OPV) became commercially available in 1961 and was adopted by the NHS in 1962. OPV was taken by mouth and entered the gut, mimicking the way in which polio was transmitted. This meant that the vaccine provided immunity more quickly. It was also cheaper and easier to produce and could be administered as drops on a sugar cube, making it more desirable for infants.  Thanks to global take up of the vaccines, Polio is now all but eradicated across the globe, with the only known ‘wild’ Polio cases reported in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

4. The NHS overtook the National Coal Board as Britain’s largest employer

Upon its foundation in July 1948, the NHS took on responsibility 405,000 healthcare staff across Britain. As demand for services grew, so did the need for staff.

The 1960s were to be a period of massive and rapid growth for the NHS. New hospitals would be built and new technologies would be developed, improving healthcare across the country. In 1961, the NHS had grown to be Britain’s largest employer, overtaking the National Coal Board. Today, it is considered one of the largest employers globally, employing around 1.7million people.

5. Migrant workers were providing crucial support for the NHS

During a House of Lords debate in 1961, Lord Cohen of Birkenhead stated: ‘The Health Service would have collapsed if it had not been for the enormous influx from junior doctors from such countries as India and Pakistan’. As Minister of Health, Enoch Powell had even led a campaign to recruit doctors from overseas (though his stance on immigration was to shift drastically over the following years).

The rapid growth of the NHS was made possible thanks to migrant workers from across the Commonwealth and those who had entered Britain during or just after World War II. By 1964 over 40% of junior hospital roles in England and Wales were filled by doctors from overseas. During the 1950s and 60s, nurses from Ireland and the Caribbean supported the expansion of the NHS, providing care and expertise when their skills were much needed. Whilst it is often framed as a traditionally ‘British’ institution, workers from overseas have made, and continue to make, a huge contribution to the NHS. And to that we say ‘Ta very much!’

We are keen to hear your memories of Infant Welfare Centres in the Black Country during the 1960s. Please get in touch with our research team to share your stories:

How to contact us

  • Tel: 0121 557 9643
  • Email:   [email protected] 
  • Post address: Collections Team, Black Country Living Museum, Tipton Road, Dudley, West Midlands DY1 4SQ