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Happy birthday NHS

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

75 years ago today, on 5 July 1948, the National Health Service was born. In this blog I’ll be exploring its history and looking at some key moments, as well as thinking about our NHS today and some of my personal experiences with the service. Hopefully I'll encourage you to think about your experiences too, and what the NHS has done for all of us during its amazing history.

Finding its feet

The NHS did not just happen in 1948; it was years in the making. At the beginning of World War II the government realised that it needed to put more funding into healthcare because of the expected casualties that the war would cause. William Beveridge produced ‘the Beveridge Report’ in 1942, which showed that disease was one of the five 'evil giants' alongside want, ignorance, squalor and idleness. He determined that there should be a free National Health Service for all although it wasn’t until 1946 that the new Labour Government passed the National Health Service Act. However health minister Aneurin Bevan still faced a lot of opposition and had a lot of work to do, which is why the NHS didn't officially come into being until 5 July 1948.

Aneurin Bevan visits a hospital on the first day of the NHS, 5 July 1948

Windrush and the NHS

Just two weeks before the NHS came into being, on 22 June 1948, HMT Empire Windrush sailed into Dover from the West Indies with 1,000 passengers on board . In the 1940s and 1950s other ships continued to come, but this first voyage gave this generation of arrivals their name. Many of those arriving in Britain at this time joined the earliest ranks of the NHS and helped to get it off the ground in those fledgling years. Their contribution is so important to the history of the NHS, and the UK as a whole, that this year also marks the 75th anniversary of Windrush too. People from the global majority continue to make a major contribution to the NHS in 2023, which is why the Windrush celebration has been made part of the NHS celebration too.

Advances in technology

In the 75 years of the NHS technology has come on leaps and bounds and there have been many innovations and many firsts, including the introduction of CT scans in 1972 and MRI scans in 1980, which have both become regular procedures in the modern-day NHS. In 1978 the first test tube baby, Louise Brown was born. The development of organ transplants has become relatively commonplace and many vaccinations have been rolled out, including measles, whooping cough, polio, HPV (for the prevention of cervical cancer) and most recently the Covid vaccines.

The Ambulance Service

As we're an emergency services museum of course I had to take some time to focus on the ambulance service. There had been ambulance services before 1948, but they were scattered: some run by councils or local authorities, some by the Red Cross or St John Ambulance, and even some by the police and fire service. All of them did things differently. With the creation of the NHS these services all came under one umbrella for the first time. However ambulances were still not much more than patient transport services. It wasn’t until the early 1960s when the research done by Dr E.L.M. Millar, and delivered in ‘The Millar Report’, recommended that to improve the quality of care to the public ambulance services should treat patients as well as transporting them to hospital. This meant a training syllabus needed to be introduced and things began to change to having a more uniform system, similar to the one we have today - with easily recognisable vehicles (after the introduction of the M1 motorway in 1959, authorities realised that emergency services vehicles needed to be easily identified) including the famous flashing blue lights and later on in the 1990s the batternburg pattern.

The Pandemic

The unprecedented situation that the world found itself in during 2020 with the Covid pandemic was a strange and confusing time, especially if you were working in the NHS. Legislation was changing constantly regarding what staff were meant to be doing, wearing and procedures that needed to be followed. The fact that they were one of several professions that were expected to carry on, while the majority of us were staying safely at home, seems so bizarre looking back on it now. All while trying to combat an illness that in the beginning they barely knew anything about and still trying to deliver the best possible care they could. The signs, road paintings and rainbows that went up in support across the UK were all extremely heartfelt, as well as the doorstep Thursday night clap, that became a ritual for many. While frontline NHS staff were battling covid, others were researching and working together to develop a vaccine, finally producing the Oxford-AstraZeneca. Once Covid vaccines from around the world were deemed safe to use by Britain's medicines regulator, the MHRA, the NHS began the largest vaccine roll out in history, with others volunteering their time to help with it. In 2022 all NHS staff were honoured with the George Cross by HM The Queen at Windsor Castle.

The NHS now and me

The road to recovery after the pandemic is still ongoing; you may hear in the news about long A&E wait times and waiting lists for patients alongside junior doctors, nurses and ambulance personnel striking due to ongoing disputes with the current government over patient safety and pay. It all seems a bit doom and gloom, for a service that has adopted the rainbow as it is symbol.

So I am going to go a bit Monty Python on you and ask, what has the NHS ever done for us? What are your personal experiences of it? For me personally it started right from the beginning of my life back in 1987, when I was born a month early and lived in an incubator for the early weeks of my life. I then went on to injure my elbow when I was three years old and they fixed me up yet again. I gave them a rest until my 20s when I needed key hole surgery not once but twice. Then I went on to have my own babies and was looked after by them through out that life changing experience as well. The second baby was born in the middle of the pandemic, so an even harder job for them than the first. This is just me; just one person and I am sure I will need them again throughout my (hopefully long) life. I think we all have a lot to thank the NHS for since its conception. Thank you NHS!

Rosie Norrell

Learning and Communities Co-ordinator

This summer we’ll be celebrating the NHS along with the rest of the UK. You can also find out more about the ambulance service in our check our website for some of the amazing activities we’ll be doing at


· The History of The Ambulance Service by Alistair Gunn with Chris Batten, Jonathan Gunn and James Sansom.

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