Sally Davies: finding a vocation

Why she left the medical setting, and why she came back
03 October 2023

Interview with 

Sally Davies


Sally Davies was born in Birmingham on the 24th of November, 1949. She was Chief Medical Officer between 2010 and 2019, and also the Chief Scientific Advisor at the Department of Health from 2004 to 2016. Her father was an Anglican priest and a theologian. Her mother, a scientist. They both became academics at the University of Birmingham. She attended Edgbaston High School for girls in Birmingham, where she also excelled in science And the viola. Dame Sally's remarkable career has included working on treatment of diseases of the blood and bone marrow. She helped to found the National Institute for Health and Care Research, worked at the WHO and she's now master of Trinity College, Cambridge, where we are meeting today. Let's begin at the beginning then. Tell us about the early years. You ended up as a scientist and a medic. Was that always on the cards or did that happen by mistake?

Sally - I didn't know what I wanted to do. I wasn't very good at school. In retrospect, I've got some funny brain wiring akin to dyslexia. I failed the 11 plus and I only began to shine at O Levels, 15, and then A Levels. I loved playing my violin and viola. I played in the Midland Youth Orchestra. I did wonder when I was young whether I could be a musician, but I had a wonderful violin teacher who when I said 'I think I'm going to do the violin', she said, 'I don't think so. You'll be quite good. You'll be in the first violins, but you have the character to be a leader. Go and find the right thing to do because you're not going to be good enough as a violinist to satisfy what you could do.' So I waited until I got my GCSEs, looked at them and I'd done quite well across the board and sat there on a summer holiday saying, 'oh dear, what am I going to do?' And it was my parents who said, 'why don't you do medicine?' You like people, it's less academic. And of course I was still struggling a bit. So that's what I went for.

Chris - Do you think you do have a funny brain wiring your words or do you think you were just a bit slower to mature? Because we assume that everyone's going to mature and do well at certain stages. But some people do bloom a bit later when they really get into their stride.

Sally - It is true that some people bloom later. I do have some funny brain wiring. There's no doubt. And my daughters have inherited it and needed much more constructive help. I invert letters, I forget names. So what happens is you develop later because you learn to compensate and find ways around it.

Chris - You then decide medicine's going to be the track you take. How did you pursue that? Where did you go to medical school?

Sally - Well, I quite wanted to go to University College, which you went to for a while. But I was too young. My school said I would never get into Oxbridge. So I went to Manchester and had a good training and I stand by it as being excellent training. But it didn't develop me beyond medicine. So after a couple of years there, I gave up.

Chris - You gave up?

Sally - The first couple of years I found quite brutalising. I remember looking after a young woman whose kidneys stopped working, acute and then chronic renal failure. And there was rationing about dialysis and they wouldn't put her on dialysis because they thought she would not abide by the strict diet and everything else. And I found things like that. And the way we handled the interactions was quite brutal.

Chris - So this would've been when you were doing what we used to call house jobs. We're now calling this foundation year jobs. It was early, early junior dr-dom

Sally - It absolutely was. And of course it remains very difficult and the COVID years have been brutalising for that generation in a different way.

Chris - Do you think it was because there were fewer women in medicine at the time? Were you slightly isolated in that respect or was it purely just the emotional brutalising effect? Because it's not just the fact that tough choices have to be made, the hours are worse then than now, but the hours were pretty harsh as well.

Sally - The hours were ghastly, but people supported us in a way they don't do now. My professor was very worried about me at one point and his wife looked after me for a week. I mean it was quite different then. Being a woman was difficult. There weren't many. I still remember the ward's sister on my first ward saying, 'you're a woman, you're here to make my tea. Not the other way round.' But she did make the tea for the men. It was the emotional side that really got to me.

Chris - Yeah, I think many people can identify with that. But that must have been a real wrench then. You'd worked really hard, got through all that, got into a career you thought was going to be right for you, that your parents had endorsed that decision and then you walked away from it for how long?

Sally - Well, I married a diplomat and I went to Madrid for four years as a diplomat's wife and realised I'd made a mistake giving it up. But what a great way to discover that you've got a vacation, which I didn't know before. Meanwhile, I learned all about the civil service. I learned Spanish to ski, to cook. I mean I did lots of things.

Chris - And then, what, came back?

Sally - I came back with him to London. We later divorced, did a course to update my medicine and just got going and became a consultant at the same stage as my own peer group.

Chris - And what discipline was that in?

Sally - I became a haematologist with a particular interest in sickle cell disease in children.

Chris - And what did you do with that?

Sally - Well, sickle cell disease is an inherited blood disorder. That means you are anaemic and you get pain crises and it's prevalent in people who come from sub-Saharan Africa and wherever they have moved to or have been moved to. So the privilege I had of looking after them was of knowing them for all their lives, knowing the parents, knowing the children. One family I looked after a grandmother, the son and his daughter. So I really got to know them and to help them learn to cope with their diseases as at that point there were no real treatments that are beginning to be now it's becoming optimistic.


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