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Barbara Robb who saw a brighter future and fought for it

Thursday 16 February 2017

Dr Claire Hilton, who works in Old Age Psychiatry in Brent for CNWL, has written a book about Barbara Robb, whose immensely influential book Sans Everything: A case to answer about mental health services was published in 1967.

Dr Hilton hopes her book will be published in June this year (Palgrave Macmillan) to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the publication of Sans Everything.
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Dr Hilton said, “Barbara Robb was a force to be reckoned with! This whole project has been exhilarating for me – researching her life, visiting places she knew, interviewing people who knew her – finding out so much about this amazing woman.”

“Barbara’s story is a reminder that campaigners can have an immense impact on achieving better provision, especially for stigmatised people. The Ministry of Health was far too slow to respond when she uncovered abuse and appalling care for older people. Her work was very controversial at the time, but ultimately she influenced NHS policies and provision including establishing an ombudsman, a hospitals’ inspectorate, better complaints procedures (to get the patients’ voice heard), and dedicated psychiatric services for older people. None of these existed when she wrote her book, but are standard now.”

Back in 2004 Dr Hilton was awarded a Wellcome Trust fellowship for a history sabbatical which led to her taking a Masters in history and then a PhD about the history of Psychogeriatric Services in England. She received further research funding in 2015-16 and this book is the result.

She says, “The topic stimulated my interest as it is about the interface between history and current policy. Barbara Robb knew how to campaign, how to use the media, and how to go to the top. One person I interviewed recalls visiting her in her Hampstead home around 1970, and when the phone rang he heard Barbara say ‘I should tell you I am recording this conversation, Minister!’”

“Sans Everything: A case to answer sold thousands in 1967 and its influence is more than memories of Barbara; it’s in the very things that we now take as standard in health care.”

CNWL will hold a book launch and talk about Barbara Robb’s life and work when a publication date is finalised.

The flyer for the book, which will also be free to download, is available here

The flyer says, “This book tells the story of Barbara Robb and her pressure group, Aid for the Elderly in Government Institutions (AEGIS). In 1965, Barbara visited 73-year-old Amy Gibbs in a dilapidated and overcrowded National Health Service psychiatric hospital. She was so appalled by the low standards that she set out to make improvements. Barbara’s book Sans Everything: A case to answer was publicly discredited by a complacent and self-righteous Ministry of Health. However, inspired by her work, staff in other hospitals ‘whistle-blew’ about events they witnessed, which corroborated her allegations.”

Dr Hilton’s PhD Thesis, The Development of Psychogeriatric Services in England from circa 1940 until 1989 is also online here.