Dame Karlene Davis
October is Black History Month. October is also when we are seeing global rises in the number of Covid-19 cases. Back in June I wrote about black women in the US who had defeated the odds and risen to become leading lights in the medical profession – encompassing nursing, dentistry, surgery and general medicine.
So what can the UK do to match these African American medical dames’ stunning achievements? Let’s look no further than Dame Karlene Davis, born in Jamaica in 1946. Karlene Davis came to the UK in 1967 to train as a nurse and subsequently as a midwife. After studying for an ‘in service’ degree in nursing education at South Bank, she rose through the ranks of the Health Service, becoming director of midwifery education at Guy’s, St Thomas’s and Lewisham, and then regional midwifery adviser for the South East Thames Regional Health Authority.
In 1997, she was appointed general secretary of the Royal College of Midwives, and thereby Britain’s first black female trade union leader. She was charged with championing the interests of around 95 per cent of the country’s 35,000 midwives. Throughout her career she has remained a steadfast advocate for the rights of women to good quality maternity care, and an outspoken champion for midwives.
Davis has always believed that midwives should be seen as the ‘lead professionals in maternity care, working together with women to enhance wider public health.’ In 2008, she spoke out in response to the Healthcare Commission’s review of maternity services. ‘Given the staffing shortfalls, we need real figures underpinned by the demographic changes facing this country if the government is to honour its guarantees for maternity care.’
Davis has also worked to improve midwifery services internationally. In 1997, she was appointed director of the World Health Organisation’s Collaborating Centre for Midwifery, with a remit to advance midwifery practice and education worldwide and improve services for women. She also represented Europe in the International Confederation of Midwives for 11 years, serving as its president from 2005 to 2008.
She instituted the Annual Midwifery Awards, which recognises midwives for the crucial role they play in the health of women and families. Davis holds at least seven honorary degrees and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine and the Royal Society of Art and a member of the Institute of Directors. In 2001, she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in recognition of her services to midwifery and the NHS.
Immigrants get a very bad press nowadays, the majority through no fault of their own. Let’s not forget that Karlene Davis was an immigrant to the UK at the age of 21. I have no doubt that she received the typical – and definitely not fair – share of racial prejudice black people encounter daily, yet just look at her stellar achievements.
I have good reason to be grateful to Dame Karlene for all that she has done for midwifery. My second child was born at home. Throughout the pregnancy, labour and delivery I was fortunate to be supported by wonderful local midwives. No doctor, no ultrasound, no intervention, just the calm presence of a knowledgeable midwife, guiding, supporting, smiling. Thank you Dame Karlene.