What role have pubs played in the history of British medicine and the NHS?

By Stuart Stone contact

- Last updated on GMT

Health begins at the pub: The Morning Advertiser examined the pub sector's medical history
Health begins at the pub: The Morning Advertiser examined the pub sector's medical history

Related tags: Nhs, Public house

The Morning Advertiser thumbed through the on-trade’s medical records to find examples of how and where its meandering history has crossed over with British medicine and the NHS.

We’ll come clean – the pints and pub grub lifestyle often associated with the great British local hasn’t dovetailed all that smoothly with the NHS since its launch on 5 July 1948, even if the community spirit that underpins arguably this country’s greatest piece of modern policy-making is broadly shared by pubs.

Born from a long-standing ideal that healthcare should be readily available based on clinical need rather than ability to pay, health minister Aneurin Bevan unveiled the nascent NHS at Park Hospital in Manchester after the passage of the National Health Service Act in 1946.

Despite extensive cutbacks in recent years, today, total health spending in England stands at around £130bn – more than the annual GDP of Ukraine or Morocco – with the NHS employing more people across the UK than live in Birmingham. According to a report by the Department of Health in December 2005, the NHS deals with more than 1m patients every 36 hours.

How has the pub trade stepped up for the NHS during Covid-19?


The Ram Inn, in Brundall, Norfolk, has raised close to £1,000 by asking locals to leave their rainbow images​ for the pub to display in return for a donation to the Norfolk & Norwich Hospitals Charity.  

The operators of the Garden House in Norwich have pledged to use £2,000 worth of tech vouchers​ received as winners of BT Sport’s latest Manager of the Month prize to treat staff at local NHS services.

East Anglian pub operator Chestnut has teamed up with Food4Heroes​ to provide tens of thousands of free meals to the region’s front-line NHS staff during the Covid-19 emergency.


Camden Town Brewery has produced a ‘Heroes’ version of its flagship Hells lager​ which will be sold online and handed out to 20,000 NHS hospital workers - with proceeds from sales going to NHS charities.

Rendezvous & Royal Oak in Weymouth, Dorset, has raised £13,200 for Dorset County Hospital​ after live streaming 20-act music festival Quayfest. 

Cornish brewer and pub operator St Austell Brewery has joined forces with takeaway and delivery service Pub Grub to deliver 800 bottles of soft drink​ to frontline staff at Royal Cornwall Hospital. 

St Austell

Publican Sylvia Ferron of the Foaming Tankard in Birmingham has returned to full-time work on the NHS front line​ during the Covid-19 emergency just months after entering the on-trade.

Sally Abé of Michelin star-holding Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropub frontrunner Harwood arms in London has cooked 100 meals per day for NHS staff ​through charity Hospitality for Heroes

Furloughed Stonegate Pub Company general manager, Cee-Jay Williams of the Junction Tap in Woking, Surrey, is using a 3D printer to help the NHS ​tackle a shortfall of 80,000 plastic visor clips.

Publican Eduardo Dantas of Tia Maria Bar & Restaurant in Vauxhall, south London​, was reduced to tears by Staff at London’s Kings College Hospital after they surprised him with a round of applause during one of his daily deliveries of 60 free meals.

Lisa Staples of the Crown Inn, Gayton, Norfolk, has set up a website​ – Free NHS Rooms – for publicans to list their rooms so that NHS workers can find living quarters near hospitals.

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic – which has seen NHS staff treat close to 200,000 confirmed cases across the UK thus far – has led to an unprecedented wave of gratitude from the public, with pubs more than playing their part.

Though the on-trade has regularly shown its support for the NHS over the years – notable mentions include 2020 Great British Pub Awards-winning Best Local, the Chandos Arms in north London, throwing a street party for the NHS’s 70th anniversary in 2018 and Beavertown Brewery offering free beer to blood donors – the current outpouring is arguably the greatest show of support pubs have shown this country’s health service.

From Rendezvous & Royal Oak in Weymouth, Dorset, raising £13,200 for Dorset County Hospital by live streaming a 20-act music festival, for example, to pubs delivering tens of thousands of free meals and even joining efforts to make personal protective equipment, the on-trade has branched into some surprising areas to help the NHS through the ongoing emergency.


What’s more, while turning blue is medically speaking a very bad sign, a number of Britain’s pubs have chosen to do so in tribute to front-line workers battling Covid-19 – though it won’t obviously fall on the NHS to resuscitate them when operators are cleared to reopen.

Medical monikers

The honour of having your face painted onto the front of a pub is usually one reserved for lords, ladies or royalty, but such is Britain’s rich medical history that a number of its nurses and scientists have had their names or tributes emblazoned above the door of a one of the nation’s many watering holes.

While London pubs the Sir Alexander Fleming in Paddington – named after the Scottish inventor credited with the discovery of penicillin – and the Florence Nightingale in Waterloo have sadly shut up shop since the turn of the Millennium, the NHS’s chief architect, Bevan, has been immortalised by beverage behemoth JD Wetherspoon, which named Cardiff pub the Aneurin Bevan in his honour.

Other on-trade tributes to medicine include the Old Doctor Butler’s Head in Mason’s Avenue, London, which was named after physician William Butler, a doctor at the court of James I who is credited with inventing the popular 17th century medicinal drink Dr Butler’s purging ale.

What’s more, the namesake of Grade II-listed pub the William Harvey in Ashford, Kent, discovered the circulation of blood and once lived in what is now the pub. Though the local hospital is also named after Harvey, the pub is said to have got there first.


In a less direct tribute, the Air Balloon pub in Gloucestershire is named in tribute to physician Edward Jenner – who popularised vaccination with his work to tackle smallpox. Jenner, who spent a fair amount of his time away from his work enthusing over hydrogen balloons, took to the skies from Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire in September 1784 before landing more than 20 miles away in Birdlip – where the local pub is now named in tribute to his flight.

DNA structure discovery announced in a pub

It’s not an understatement to suggest that James Watson and Francis Crick discovering the structure of DNA and how it carries genetic information in 1953 laid the groundwork for almost 75 years of game-changing medical discoveries and treatment. 

Yet while images of DNA’s double helix structure are among the most recognisable and iconic in science, what isn’t as commonplace is the fact the pair’s discovery was first announced in Cambridge pub, the Eagle. 

The Grade II-listed venue was the local watering hole for scientists working at the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory such as Watson and Crick, who would claim the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 for their discovery.

The pair’s work to unravel DNA’s structure essentially clarified how genes work. By uncovering the molecular properties of genes, Watson and Crick’s discovery meant that scientists could understand how they could be damaged, why mutations could cause harmful diseases and allowed experts to work out ways to fix them. For example, in April 2020, Rhys Evans became the first child in Britain to be cured of an inherited disorder as a result of gene therapy stemming from Watson and Crick’s work. 


Going smoke-free around 30 years before the ban

While MPs voted to ban smoking in enclosed public spaces – including pubs – as of summer 2007, more than 30 years prior a publican in Yorkshire created Britain’s first licensed smokeless zone.

According to the Pub History Society, Essex-born publican John Showers declaring the New Inn in Appletreewick near Skipton, in North Yorkshire, the world’s first no smoking inn in the early 1970s generated global media attention and even a congratulatory letter from then health minister George Godber.

While the publican’s initial objection to customers smoking on his premises focused on the amount of damage it caused his pub’s carpets, floors and furniture on top of nicotine staining his walls and ceilings and the fire risk – the death of a close friend from lung cancer saw Showers shift his ire from building damage to disease.

Showers’s then sensational ban featured on television, radio and newspapers both at home and abroad, with the publican advertising the New Inn as ‘England’s First Fresh Air Inn’.

Related topics: Health & safety, UnitedWeStand

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