Medicine in the 20th century

Public health

Children enjoying a free lunch at school.
Children enjoy a free school lunch

During the Boer War of 1899 to 1902, the government discovered that half the volunteers for the army were unfit for service. In the 1900s, therefore, the Liberal government passed a string of welfare reforms based on 'the personal principle' – the belief that the government had a responsibility to care for the individual citizen:

  • in 1906, local authorities were given the right to provide free school meals for poor children
  • in 1907, the School Medical Service gave free health checks
  • in 1908, the government introduced pensions for old people
  • in 1911, the National Insurance Act provided free medical treatment for workers, and benefit money for those out of work

After the Beveridge Report (1942) during World War Two, the government took responsibility for caring for its citizens 'from the cradle to the grave' and introduced 'the Welfare State':

  • in 1945, the Family Allowances Act gave a small payment for children
  • in 1947, the Town and Country Planning Act set targets for the clearance of slums
  • in 1948, the Labour Health Minister Aneurin Bevan set up the National Health Service – free doctors and hospitals, paid for out of taxes
  • in 1948, the National Assistance Act, abolished the poor law and brought in social security
  • in 1956, the Clean Air Act imposed smokeless zones

By 2001 the government provided or subsidised a huge array of services to:

  • help with family planning, care for pregnant women and visit mothers with infants
  • provide doctors and hospitals, dentists and opticians, diet and psychological care
  • support old people in their homes, and provide care homes for those unable to look after themselves

Where next?

You can study certain aspects of medicine through time in more detail – for instance the Black Death and The Plague.

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