The National Health Service is our army to defend the sick, and we rely on it today more than ever before. Everybody knows that it came into existence as a result of the political ideals of Aneurin Bevan and the post Second World War Labour government. Most probably do not know, however, how those ideals became a practicality – how the political will was turned into a working National Health Service. The family history and motivation of the leading medic at the time, Hugh Lett, is one which is particularly relevant in the midst of our present COVID-19 crisis, and may bring comfort and hope to us in these desperate times.

Hugh Lett was born in 1876, served as a surgeon in the military hospitals on the Western Front in World War 1, and was appointed President of the Royal College of Surgeons just before the outbreak of World War 2. In 1946, he was appointed President of the British Medical Association, and thus was in office when the extensive work took place to turn Bevan’s ideal into an effective Health Service – not an easy task, but one which he and the team that supported him achieved with great success. When Sir Hugh Lett, Bt [as he then was] died in 1964, his obituary included the following: “his wise statesmanship proved invaluable to the profession and the nation in preparing for the start of the National Health Service.”

What few people knew then, or know now, is that the creation of a People’s Army to defend the sick was something very close to Hugh’s heart, since he himself had lost his grandfather, also a doctor, in the front line of an epidemic not dissimilar to the one that we are facing today. In 1854, Dr Richard Lett, aged 39, was the village GP in Silverstone, Northamptonshire, not very different from Minchinhampton as it was then. He was therefore very much in the front line when the village was struck in that year by a dreadful highly contagious illness which the medical profession did not yet understand. In 1854, its name was Cholera. It was brought to the village by a visiting friend – a young maidservant returning from her situation in a distant town to visit her widowed mother. Unknowingly she was carrying cholera and quickly passed it on to some others in Silverstone. The disease swept through the village, killing some [including the maidservant herself] but sparing others. There was no vaccine. Dr Richard Lett had had great success in treating typhoid fever, and set about his work with compassion, energy and enthusiasm, hoping to find some cure for cholera. In 1854, the concept of Personal Protective Equipment was, of course, all but non-existent, but the doctor was not deterred, as medics never are, by the dangers of his work. Eventually, Dr Lett caught the disease. He gave his life for his patients, and died of the cholera that he had caught from one of them on 12th September. He left a widow and five small children, four girls and a boy.

It was a terrifying and tragic time for the Lett family and for the people of the village – but with the fortitude and courage that the human race possesses, they got through it. Too many died, as too many are dying now, but the village and the majority of its inhabitants survived. As best they could in those Days, they practised social distancing. When, for instance, a body was laid to rest in the churchyard, there was no funeral service inside the church; all was done in the open air, and the mourners distanced themselves from the open grave.

The village recovered and regenerated. The sadness of loss eased during the passing of the years until it became a distant memory, and all that was left of the epidemic was a sad line of graves in the churchyard known as cholera row. Life went on, new lives began, old lives came naturally to a close, normality returned. Dr Richard Lett’s widow brought up his children, and his son, named Richard after his father, also became a doctor. He practised, like his father, as a GP, in Lincolnshire and in Yorkshire. He had eight children, the eldest of whom, Hugh Lett, followed his father and grandfather into medicine.
It was against that family background that Hugh Lett (left) worked with the politicians to create the People’s Army that defends us today – the National Health Service. He knew only too well what the consequences of a lethal epidemic such as Cholera or COVID-19 could be, and how much the people of this country needed the defence that it has now got. Hugh Lett guided the medical practicalities that brought to life the political vision and drive of Nye Bevin and the Labour Government of the day, and presided over the creation of our brave and much-loved National Health Service. Hugh’s grandfather, Richard, who had given his life for his patients nearly one hundred years before, would have been very proud of what his grandson and the politicians had achieved.
The message of history, and that of Silverstone in 1854, is that we will come through this sad and depressing time. COVID-19 is not the first devastating mystery illness to strike at us. We have defeated them before. We will grieve for those whom we lose or have lost, but life will go on. We must think of the future, and of the hope that our children and grandchildren will grow up, have happy lives, and go on to great things. Richard Lett died on the front line, but his grandson Hugh went on to help to create the National Health Service.

And, of course, when we have survived this, we will meet again!

Brian Lett Q.C. (grandson of Hugh & soon to be resident of Minchinhampton)