July 18, 2005

Founder of Hospice, Dame Cicely Saunders, Dies

Dame Cicely Saunders has died in the hospice she founded.

Dame Cicely Saunders, who died yesterday aged 87, was regarded as the mother of the modern hospice movement; at St Christopher's Hospice, Sydenham, south London, founded in 1967, she charted new approaches in techniques for treatment of the terminally ill, based on her Christian belief that no human life, no matter how wretched, should be denied dignity and love.


Cicely Saunders first had the idea of creating a modern hospice in 1948, when she was working as a lady almoner (medical social worker) at St Thomas's Hospital in London. There she met David Tasma, a young Polish waiter who, having escaped from the Warsaw ghetto, was dying of cancer, in great pain, on a ward she was visiting.

Though he had little English, they spent their time together talking about death and the care of the dying: "He needed to make his peace with the God of his fathers, and the time to sort out who he was," she recalled. "We discussed the idea of somewhere that could have helped him to do this better than a busy hospital ward."

Cicely Saunders fell deeply in love and, when he died, he left her all he had - £500 - and told her: "I'll be a window in your home." "It was as though God was tapping me on the shoulder and telling me 'You've got to get on with it'," she recalled.

Carrying Tasma's memory with her, Cicely Saunders became a physician and went on to found St Christopher's Hospice, where she hoped to "help the dying to live until they die and their families to live on". She had no new drugs, but showed how, by using them earlier in anticipation of, rather than in response to, the onset of pain, terminally ill patients could be kept comfortable until the end.

What a great lady. We owe her a debt of gratititude. (HT Wesley J. Smith)