Dame Professor Sally Davies
Born 24th November, 1949 (Birmingham, United Kingdom)
Sally Davies was named the sixth most powerful woman in the UK by Woman’s Hour, a BBC radio programme, in 2013. She is the first woman to hold the post of Chief Medical Officer for England. In 2006 she set up the National Institute for Health Research, a body that has revolutionised the approach to clinical and applied research in the UK. She is also at the forefront of spearheading efforts to combat antimicrobial resistance around the world. All this she has achieved in the midst of dealing with a likely variant of dyslexia, being widowed young and becoming a mother in her forties. Much of her career has been shaped by serendipity and her strong desire to make the world a better place.
Sally Davies was born into an academic family. Her parents met in Cambridge during the Second World War. Each of them came from very different backgrounds and were the first generation in their families to get a university education. Davies’ mother, (Emily) Mary Tordoff, grew up in Bradford, where her father worked in the mills. They had little in the way of income. By contrast, Davies’s father, (John) Gordon Davies, hailed from a middle-class family of wine and spirits merchants who were freemasons in Chester and had the money to send him to King’s School, a private school (1).
The fact that Davies’ mother went to university was a major achievement given the small number of women who did degrees at the time. While her grandfather encouraged her to go to university, her mother was less keen for her to go because the family lacked the financial means to support her. Hitching a lift between Bradford and Cambridge was the only way Mary could get between university and home because she did not have the money for travel expenses. Being highly conscious of her background, Mary worked hard to lose her Bradford accent and read books so that she could fit in with everyone else in Cambridge (1).
Cambridge University was still a very unequal place for women when Mary arrived there. Most colleges remained closed to women and female students were not awarded full degrees, having to make do with a diploma instead. Mary was admitted to Newnham College, one of the three colleges then open to women in Cambridge. She happened to be at the college around the same time as Rosalind Franklin, the x-ray crystallographer who went on to make significant contributions to understanding the molecular structure of DNA. Davies’ mother studied natural sciences. Following her degree, Mary gained a position at the Admiralty where she worked on guns. She was assigned the work after being interviewed by C.P. Snow, the director of the Ministry of Labour. Her specialty was hydraulics (1).
It was ironic that Mary, who was an atheist and worked on guns, should land up married to Gordon, a pacifist curate. Gordon initially attended Christ Church College in Oxford to read history, but quickly switched to theology. He finished his training at Westcott House, a theological college in Cambridge. Gordon's decision to enter the church was greatly influenced by Mamie, a very strong moral Huguenot woman who was the mother of his best friend - originally his school French pen pal. He first met Mamie when he went on an exchange visit at the age of 15. The visit proved the start of a long-lasting friendship (1).
Gordon's decision to become a theologian put him at odds with the rest of his family of wine and spirits merchants. Being a pacifist also put him very much in the minority during the Second World War. Facing the real prospect of being imprisoned because he was a conscientious objector, John had the fortune of being given the freedom to work as a curate for the Church of England. He took up a position at St Mary’s Church in Rotherhithe, a docklands parish in South East London that suffered severe damage and human casualties from bombing in the war. Many years later John regretted having been a pacifist in World War II because of the evilness of Hitler and the Nazi regime (1). His change of heart was not unusual for many British pacifists after the war.
Gordon and Mary married in St Mary’s Church. Their first child, Jane, was born in 1945. Shortly after this they moved to Birmingham where Gordon joined the Department of Theology at Birmingham University. By the time Davies was born, in 1949, her father was well on his way to becoming a prolific academic scholar, churning out a book each year on various subjects including theology, liturgy and religious architecture (2). Five years later the couple had their final child, Mark. With three small children on her hands, Davies’ mother stopped work. Mary later became a mathematics teacher once the children got older and went on to teach herself computing and became a lecturer at Birmingham University (1, 3).
Davies had a happy childhood and fondly remembers sitting at the family table robustly debating moral and ethical issues with her father. She also recalls frequently listening to her father reading Martin Luther King’s speeches from newspapers. Davies carried the values of right and wrong she learnt from her father into adulthood and they gave her a strong moral compass which helped mould both her student left-wing political activism and subsequent career choices (1).
Davies’ parents expected all three of their children to go to university (3). Unlike her older sister, who shone academically and got a scholarship to Oxford University, Davies’ educational attainments proved far from seamless. Much to her parents’ shock she failed the eleven-plus exam, a test designed to assess a student’s intelligence. This prevented Davies from getting a place at the local grammar school and direct-grant maintained school attended by her sister. It also severely knocked Davies’ confidence. To this day she describes herself as the ‘dunce’ of her family (1).
In the end Davies went to Edgbaston High School for Girls, a private school, where for the first few years she remained bottom of her class. Much to her mother’s frustration she struggled with quantitative subjects like maths and physics. Davies also found it difficult to learn lists. It was only many years later, once she had become a medical consultant, that Davies discovered she probably had a variant of dyslexia, a condition little known and for which there was little help during her school years. Despite this, Davies began to turn a corner by the the age of 15 and by the time she left school had risen to the top of her class (1).
Throughout her school years Davies enjoyed many different subjects including art, literature, science and music. She was particularly good at playing the viola and played in the Midlands Youth Orchestra. Having so many interests made she found it difficult to know what career route to take. One topic in particular, however, fascinated her - genetics. Her curiosity in the subject was first awakened after reading James Watson’s book The Double Helix. Based on her love of the detective nature of science and that she did well in her biology exams, plus the fact she enjoyed caring for people, Davies’ mother encouraged by her consider medicine (2).
Davies started her medical degree at Manchester University in 1967. Pursuing a course that involved a lot of rote learning of facts was not the easiest for path for a dyslexic. Davies coped by making sure she overlearnt the subjects she was to be tested on. She also realised it was possible for her to work out answers in exams if she had a solid understanding of the basic principles behind a problem. While Davies never shone at medical school, she did enough to graduate in 1972 aged just 22.
Alongside studying medicine, Davies’ spent a lot her time at university sailing for the men’s first team because, as she says ‘the women’s team were not very good at the time’. She also did a lot of debating long into the night in the student union and went on many demonstrations against the Vietnam war and apartheid. Reflecting his dry sense of humor, her father asked whether she had joined the Alcoholics Anonymous after Davies wrote to say she had become a member of the AA (the Anti-Apartheid movement). He was very proud of the stand she took on apartheid and other issues (1).
Little could Davies have foreseen how her social activism would take centre stage in her interview for her first medical job. On entering the room for the interview she found 24 consultants staring at a photo of her on the front page of The Guardian newspaper. It showed two policewomen dragging her away from an anti-apartheid demonstration. Unfortunately she had worn a skirt to the demonstration and all that could be seen in the photo were her ‘knickers and a face grinning over the top of the skirt that was recognisably’ her. To Davies’ amazement the panel gave her a better job than the one she had originally applied for (4).
Nothing in Davies’ medical training could have prepared her for her day-to-day work as a doctor., which she found incredibly distressing and brutalising. On one occasion she found herself comforting a young woman, aged 22 with a three month-old baby, whom she wrapped her arms around all night because she was slowly dying from fluid filling up her lungs. The patient’s kidneys had packed up and there were too few machines available to give her dialysis. Another time Davies watched a man with tuberculosis die of a haemorrhage in the middle of the night with blood coming out of his mouth because he was tilted head down. Many a time she also saw babies die who were then just wrapped up in blankets for nurses to walk to the mortuary (4,5,6).
Completely drained after her two years as a junior doctor, one of which was spent doing chest and heart medicine, Davies left medicine for four years. This followed her marriage to Ralph F. W. Skilbeck, a member of the Foreign Office, whom she accompanied to become a diplomat’s wife in Madrid. It did not take long, however, for Davies to realise that she was not cut out to be a full-time wife and that she wanted to return to medicine (4). On returning to London, Davies did a self-funded three-month advanced medicine course at Hammersmith Hospital to bring herself up-to-date. Thereafter she secured a position as a Senior House Officer in paediatrics (6). It soon became clear, however, that the demands of being on-call were incompatible with married life so Davies switched to haematology. The pressures of completing her haematology qualifications, nonetheless took a severe toll on her relationship with Skilbeck, which ended in divorce (4).
A few years later, in 1982, aged 31, Davis suffered yet more hardship - her second husband, Philip Vulliamy, a management consultant, was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia. He was only 38 years old. Having been married for less than a year, Davies immediately swung into action to make sure Villiamy got the support he needed to have a good death at home. The experience had a profound effect on Davies. Firstly it gave her an insight into the cultural taboos that surround death. She remembers being greeted by silence when she returned to work until she signalled to her team that they could talk to her about her loss. Secondly, she learnt the value of physical touch for the dying. Just how important this was struck her particularly forcefully on one ward round when she put an arm around a man clearly in distress for whom nothing seemed to be able to help. He died peacefully an hour later. Davies was astonished by how embarrassed her colleagues were by her action and their inability to understand how comforting physical contact could be for someone suffering at the end of their life (7).
In 1985 Davies became the first haematologist in the UK appointed to work on sickle-cell anaemia. She took up the position at Central Middlesex Hospital, a district hospital in a deprived area of North-West London. Sickle-cell anaemia is an inheritable blood disorder that has life-threatening symptoms, including an enlarged spleen, leg ulcers and pneumonia. Those who have the disease face a lifetime of excruciating pain. The most common inherited disorder in the world, sickle-cell anaemia predominantly affects people of Afro-Caribbean, Asian and Middle-Eastern descent. Despite its prevalence, sickle-cell anaemia is generally overlooked in medicine and its sufferers are often treated as second-class patients. Their plight is worsened by the ignorance of medical practitioners and mismanagement of their condition. Fascinated by sickle-cell anaemia on multiple levels, Davies spearheaded moves to improve basic hospital care for sufferers and appointed a psychologist in her hospital to help support them. She also pioneered the first regional screening programme in Europe for neonatal babies at birth (4).
Five years into her position at Central Middlesex, Davies married Willem Ouwehand, a Dutch haematologist. The two of them share a passion for haematology and genetics. They first met in the 1980s when Davies visited the Netherlands to learn a technique at Ouwehand’s institution. It was only many years later, however, after one of Davies’ team put them together for supper, that their relationship took off and Ouwehand moved to England so that they could be together. Ouwehand gained a position initially as a lecturer and now as a professor of experimental haematology at Cambridge University (1).
Davies had her first child, Olivia, in 1992, at the age of 43. She then had Isa in 1996. While thrilled to become a mother, childbirth left Davies with incontinence. She was unable to leave the house for six weeks after her first child because she could not walk for more than three yards before she had an accident. Davies is still not right to this day (8).
Having children in her forties with a husband working away in Cambridge all week was also very tiring for Davies. The one advantage she had was that her career was now well-established and she had the money to employ a full-time live-in nanny. Combining motherhood with her career nonetheless was not easy. While more than happy to stay behind in the evening for a sick patient who needed her, she always found it galling to attend evening meetings that unnecessarily dragged on when all she wanted to do was go home to be with her daughters to bath them and put them to bed. Never known for being a shrinking violet, Davies was not afraid to speak her mind and walk out of meetings that ran over time (1,5).
By the time Davies had become a mother, she had developed a strong interest in how research was conducted in the National Health Service. Her interest in this area was ignited by her joining a regional research scheme committee in North London in the late 1980s. The committee asked her to come on board because they needed a woman and someone with experience of working in a district hospital. They also needed someone who knew how to run a laboratory, which was part of Davies’ job as a haematologist. Davies spent the first year just observing and learning the ropes. By the second year, however, she had sufficient confidence to start making comments and a year later was persuaded to become the committee’s chair (5).
Davies subsequently went on to become the director of research for the whole of London. This initially proved very painful for Davies as she had the difficult task of defending London’s large budget against eight directors from other regions. On more than one occasion Davies had to deal with directors trying to bully her to get more of the money. Finding the situation impossible Davies eventually went to her regional boss and bluntly declared, ‘we have three choices: I leave, I burn out, or you train me.’ Faced with this, her boss agreed to pay for her to attend a three week course at the European Business School. Davies was the only woman on the course and the only one from the public sector, but she gained an enormous amount from it. Importantly she learnt a lot about emotional intelligence and how to watch the dynamics of conversations with a 'third eye'. The course provided a major turning point for Davies. Critically, it equipped her with the tools to get her own way without getting into fights, something she had found difficult before (4).
In 2004 Davies was appointed the Director-General of Research and Development at the Department of Health. Seconded to be a civil servant after 30 years in clinical practice was a major challenge. Davies, however, had the advantage of having been a diplomat’s wife. This meant that she already had some insights into the civil service and its hierarchy. Once in post Davies quickly took on the task of reorganising the way medical research was funded in the NHS. Her objective was to rebuild Britain’s strong record in clinical research which had faded since 1970s and 1980s. Such a venture was a major undertaking. Much of the £500 million budget that had been historically earmarked for research had gone straight to hospitals and nobody knew exactly what the money was spent on, what the quality of research was and whether in fact the money was actually spent on research. The only way forward, Davies believed, was to claw the money back from the hospitals and create a transparent funding scheme. This would make it possible to track where the money was spent (9).
Davies’ idea inevitably met a lot of resistance. Many powerful institutions, including major teaching hospitals, feared they would lose out in the redistribution of the funds. In addition, many colleagues were sceptical that Davies could ever achieve her ambition as many had failed before. Described ‘as a force of nature’ by Sir Keith Peter, originally one of her most vehement opponents, by 2006 Davies had managed to persuade her ministerial colleagues to set up the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR), a body to oversee the funding of research in the NHS (4).
Now the envy of the world, the NIHR is the largest national clinical research funder in Europe with a budget of over £1 billion. The Institute has many different components. It includes managed clinical research networks, medical training centres, experimental medical centres that support biomedical research and ethical review committees. On top of this, the Institute has what was initially called a ‘market failure budget’. This provides funding for research that no one else will fund that will benefit NHS patients, such as running clinical trials to compare off-patent drugs with each other and evaluate the use of hard beds for treating back pain. The NIHR also provides seed funding to test out technology and entrepreneurship training to help people get follow-on funding (6).
Davies was also appointed Chief Scientific Adviser in 2004 to the Department of Health. This she did alongside her work as NIHR director. In case she did not already have enough work on her plate, in 2010 she also became interim Chief Medical Officer (CMO), a position that became permanent in 2011. Taking on the position was a daunting prospect. No woman had ever been CMO in the 165 years of the position’s history. Moreover, most CMOs had a specialist background in public health which she did not have. Her decision to take on the post was informed in part because she herself had to report to the CMO and she feared a new person taking over might clip back the wings of the NIHR that the former CMO encouraged. Davies was also emboldened by the fact that other applicants seeking the job had less expertise than her( 6).
Coming from a different background to her public health predecessors, Davies asserts has given her a major advantage. Importantly, she has managed to bring a patient-focused and evidence based approach to formulating health policy in government( 1). One of the strengths Davies has brought to the CMO role has also been her collaborative approach. All the annual reports she is expected to produce as CMO, for example, she puts together with the help of a team (10). These reports have covered a range of topics, including the effect of alcohol and obesity on health, child poverty and mental health.
Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England, talks about her role as a senior government advisor and how it feels to be a woman leader. Filmed at the National Portrait Gallery, June 2016.
In 2009 Davies was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for her services to medicine. In 2010 she was elected a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences. Following this, in 2014, she was elected Fellow of the Royal Society. In addition to this, Davies holds 24 honorary degrees. Despite her stella career, Davies still finds it odd to be the only woman present in many of the meetings she attends. And like many other women, she continues to experience feelings of doubt about her abilities. Indeed, as she admits, she sometimes feels like an imposter (5, 7). What keeps her going is repeating her motto to herself, ‘If you believe it, you can do it’ and staying true to her principles (11).
Aside from her own achievements, Davies has become a major champion of female doctors and scientists. Concerned by the lack of women's representation in medical leadership positions, in 2011 Davies galvanised medical schools and other institutions in the biomedical sector into taking action on gender equality. This she did by stipulating that such places would only be able to get short-listed for NIHR research funding from 2015 if they held a Silver Athena SWAN award. Such awards are only given to institutions that have fully demonstrated a commitment to advancing women’s careers. Davies took the measure to prompt institutions into realising the economic consequences of not harnessing women‘s talent and to start putting in place mechanisms to rectify the problem. Her action was rapidly met what she has described as ‘some of the rudest letters and phone-calls in my life’, a number of which came from university vice chancellors. Yet her policy soon paid off (9). It transformed the nature of the Athena award overnight from one that was seen as a voluntary opt-in for institutions into one of necessity. The number of applications for Athena Swan awards tripled between 2012 and 2013 (12).
Beyond Britain, Davies has had a major impact on the world stage. Importantly, Davies has used her position as CMO and member of the World Health Organisation Executive Board, to direct the world’s attention to the problem of increasing antimicrobial resistance (AMR). This, she argues, poses the greatest threat to modern medicine. She has also spearheaded a campaign to put in place a global plan to deal with the issue. In 2014, she persuaded the British Prime Minister, Cameron, to commission Jim O’Neil (now Lord Jim O’Neil), an eminent economist, to lead an independent review on AMR, Antimicrobial Resistance: Tackling a crisis for health and wealth of nations (2016). In 2016 she helped secure a historic UN declaration on antimicrobial resistance which was signed by 193 countries at the General Assembly. Each country committed to set up a surveillance and regulatory system for the use of antibiotics in humans and animals, develop innovative pathways to create new antibiotics and rapid diagnostics, and foster awareness among the public and health professionals about how to prevent drug resistant infections (13).
Once describing her career as ‘messy’, Davies had no idea at the start what she wanted to do. Ironically given her position today, like many women she did not seek power and shied away from it. For her it was far more important to find a role where she could have influence. As she put it in one interview, she ‘wanted influence to change the world to make it a better place.’ Rather than claiming her ideas for herself she prefers to hear others adopt them as their own ideas. This she sees as the best means of influence (5).
This profile was written by Lara Marks in July 2018 with generous input from Sally Davies and Nick Gunning.
(1) Interview with Davies by Lara Marks, notes, 1 June 2018.
(2) John Gordon Davies, The Writers Directory, 1980-1982 (MacMillan Press, 1979), p.297.
(3) Interview with Davies, The Scientific 23, http://thescientific23.com/interview?id=22&name=Sally%20Davies
(4) Interview with Davies by Jim Al-Khalili, ‘The Life Scientific’ radio broadcast, BBC Radio 4, Nov 2014, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04n31vw
(5) Interview with Davies by Jane Garvey, ‘Woman’s Hour’, BBC radio 4, 23 July 2013, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0375p86
(6) S. Ghabina, ‘Interview: Dame Sally Davies’, 2015, Royal College of Surgeons, England, https://publishing.rcseng.ac.uk/doi/pdf/10.1308/rcsbull.2015.97.3.113.
(7) Interview with Davies by Michael Berkeley, BBC Radio 3, Private Passions, 13 Aug 2013, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b038kzww
(8) M. Dilworth, ‘Chief doctor reveals how she still struggles with incontinence more than 20 years after giving birth to her two daughters’, Daily Mail, 27 Feb 2017.
(9) Royal Society, ‘A life in health: A conversation by Vivienne Parry with Sally Davies, April 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_KlXldwU3E
(10) B. Martynoga, ‘Inside the home of Sally Davies, England’s chief medical officer’, Financial Times, 29 May 2015
(11) O. Gordon, ‘Chief Medical Officer for England Dame Sally Davies on the urgent need for new biotics, Oxford Today, 26 Feb 2016.
(12) J. Gove, ‘Athena SWAN gender equity charter spreads across sector’, Times Higher Education Supplement, 10 Oct 2013..
(13) Department of Health and Social Care, ‘UN secures historic declaration on antimicrobial resistance’, 21 Sept 2016.
Sally Davies: timeline of key events
|24 Nov 1949||Sally Davies born||Davies|
|1967||Davies starts her medical degree at Manchester University||Davies||Manchester University|
|1972||Davis completes her medical degree and becomes a junior doctor||Davies||Manchester University|
|1 Jan 1974||Davies marries and leaves medicine to become a diplomat's wife in Madrid||Davies|
|1978||Davies took 3-month refrehers course in medicine and became Senior House Officer in paediatrics||Davies||Hammersmith Hospital|
|1982||Davies' become a widow, aged 31, less than a year after marrying her second husband||Davies|
|1985||Davies appointed first haematologist in UK to specialise in sickle-cell anaemia||Davies||Central Middlesex Hospital|
|1988||Davies joined regional research committee in North London||Davies|
|1990||Davies married Willem Ouwehand, her third husband||Davies|
|1 Jan 1992||Davies had her first child||Davies|
|1996||Davies had her second child||Davies|
|2004||Davies appointed Director-General of Research and Development at the Department of Health||Davies|
|2004||Davies appointed Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department of Health||Davies|
|2006||Davies founded and became director of National Institute of Health Research||Davies|
|2009||Davies made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for her services to medicine||Davies|
|2010||Davies appointed interim Chief Medical Officer of England||Davies|
|2010||Davies elected fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences||Davies|
|2011||Policy implemented insisting UK medical schools demonstrate good employment practices for women to be short-listed for funding from National Institute for Health Research||Davies|
|2011||Davies appointed permanent Chief Medicial Officer of England||Davies|
|2014||Davies elected Fellow of Royal Society||Davies|
|2014||Davies persuaded UK Prime Minister to commission review of rising antimicrobial resistance||Davies|
|2016||Davies helps secure historic UN declaration on antimicrobial resistance||Davies|
24 Nov 1949
Sally Davies born
Davies starts her medical degree at Manchester University
Davis completes her medical degree and becomes a junior doctor
1 Jan 1974
Davies marries and leaves medicine to become a diplomat's wife in Madrid
Davies took 3-month refrehers course in medicine and became Senior House Officer in paediatrics
Davies' become a widow, aged 31, less than a year after marrying her second husband
Davies appointed first haematologist in UK to specialise in sickle-cell anaemia
Davies joined regional research committee in North London
Davies married Willem Ouwehand, her third husband
1 Jan 1992
Davies had her first child
Davies had her second child
Davies appointed Director-General of Research and Development at the Department of Health
Davies appointed Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department of Health
Davies founded and became director of National Institute of Health Research
Davies made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for her services to medicine
Davies appointed interim Chief Medical Officer of England
Davies elected fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences
Policy implemented insisting UK medical schools demonstrate good employment practices for women to be short-listed for funding from National Institute for Health Research
Davies appointed permanent Chief Medicial Officer of England
Davies elected Fellow of Royal Society
Davies persuaded UK Prime Minister to commission review of rising antimicrobial resistance
Davies helps secure historic UN declaration on antimicrobial resistance