The Winds of Change, Stross and the NHS

In the summer of 1945, Allied victory over Nazi Germany had been secured, but conflict had left the British people exhausted and the nation financially crippled. To keep going, between 1939 and 1941 Britain had liquidated most of its overseas holdings, sacrificed most of its export trade and borrowed to excess. The national feeling was that Britain had stood up for what was right in order to protect and safeguard the future of all humanity, while all around sat still. Because of these sacrifices by 1945, the UK National Debt had tripled and external borrowings were the highest in the nation’s history – more than £140 billion in 2022 prices. To compound matters, by September 1945, with the war with Japan now complete Lend-Lease – the US programme of assistance that provided food, oil, and materials to Britain throughout the war abruptly stopped.

The 1945 General Election

In the forthcoming General Election, Winston Churchill could only offer more austerity, but the people desired change. On the 5th of July 1945, Clement Attlee’s Labour Party swept to power in Britain with a manifesto that promised to provide sweeping reforms to its Industry, Education, Housing, Transport, Welfare and Health sectors, including the establishment of a National Health Service, based on the recommendations of Sir William Beveridge in his 1942 report ‘Social Insurance and Allied Services’. Leader of the Lidice Shall Live campaign, Dr Barnett Stross, was elected, and would remain MP for Hanley from 1945 to 1950, and then MP for Stoke Central until 1965. When the Government launched the National Health Service on the 5th of July 1948, Stross proved to be a quiet, no-nonsense, but crucial ingredient in creating its infrastructure and guiding principles.

Dr Barnett Stross, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Health, talks to a facial burns patient at Fairfield Halls, Croydon, December 1964.

Scanning through the newspaper archive today it becomes clear just how critical a role Dr Stross played in Public Health, reassuring Britons during the severe austerity of the late 1940s as the NHS found traction amidst the backdrop of acute rationing and one of the coldest winters on record—1946-47. Stross seemed to be everywhere – giving advice on how to make the best of the situation: calorie intake, keeping warm, child welfare, as well as playing a very visible role in getting the NHS up and running in practical terms. He was, for many years, concerned with the problems of nutrition and the dangers of lung cancer through smoking, using the outlets available to him to reach out to the public to effect change.

Newspaper articles and pamphlets spanning three decades reveal his determination in raising the level of public information on health and community issues and his resoluteness in exposing all that was potentially harmful for the benefit of society at large. “Dr Stross and the effects of night work,” “City MP and lung cancer,” “Town Hall by Dr Stross,” “Dr Stross and stage hypnotism,” and “Public Health and Food Inspection” are a random selection from the many such headlines over the years.

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