Dr Joan McMichael
Dr Joan McMichael was born on February 8th 1906 in India, as Joan Catherine MacPherson in a tent in Gudrunwala in the Punjab; indeed, she was delivered by her own father, who was to become the Inspector General in the police of the Indian Raj. Much to her disapproval, he was to, several times, arrest Mahatma Ghandi.
In the early 1920s, she went to Edinburgh University, being one of the first women medical students to study there. In spite of having had no science training previously at all, she graduated as a doctor in 1929. Like many of her contemporaries, she became aware of politics in the 1926 general strike, having treated strikers who had been physically assaulted by police and this contributed to radicalising her views enormously.
Some years later, she joined the Labour Party and then the Communist Party in 1936, remaining a staunch, even leading, Communist for the rest of her life. During the Spanish Civil War, she was involved in Medical Aid for Spain and then went on the support Medical Aid for China. Her increasing interest and involvement in politics led to the breakdown of her first marriage to a fellow student, John McMichael, later Sir John, and also the father of her first two sons, from whom she was very sad to be parted.
At the beginning of the Second World War, she worked for the blood transfusion service in Slough. Later, she became Medical Officer for Health in West London, where was noted for her dedication to occupational health. (See pic left, Joan is in the white coat.) Joan served on a Ministry of Supply advisory committee. She married Bill Carritt (see separate entry), with whom she had two children, a girl and a boy.
A member of the Party’s Executive Committee for a time, Dr Joan McMichael was an early champion of children’s and workers’ health rights and was instrumental in carrying out Britain’s first industrial mass X-ray screening for tuberculosis. After the war, she became Medical Officer for Health for London County Council, working especially with children with disabilities in the Fulham and Hammersmith areas, a field in which she remained involved well into the 1970s, writing a book on the subject.
Joan McMichael was a leader of the post-war squatters’ movement, which enabled families living in appalling conditions to move in and occupy empty luxury dwellings. She was particularly active in the struggle at Fountain Court, just off Buckingham Palace Road, where homeless families moved into unoccupied flats. In 1947, she was elected one of three Communist councillors to Westminster Borough Council, where a particular interest of hers was in fighting for better housing and conditions for working people.
She was even better known for using her medical skills, setting up Medical Aid for Vietnam in 1965, following a visit to the World Congress of Women in Moscow 1963, as chair of a group of some fifty women delegates from Britain. She had listen, spellbound, to accounts of horrifying terror and torture that the Vietnamese people were enduring. This so moved her that she dedicated the remaining 24 years of her life to the cause of peace in Vietnam. She became close friends of the head of a hospital in Hanoi, the director of the Vietnamese Institute for Medical Research and the Minister of Health. Twice, she was able to hold discussions with Ho Chi-Minh on what the medical needs of the country were and how supporters in Britain could help.
Joan’s expertise on medical problems in developing countries, aided by her experience in Vietnam, led to her writing a book on solutions to health issues in such countries. Her energy was, however, mostly devoted to Medical Aid to Vietnam, which she indisputedly led. Some £2.5 million was raised to send penicillin, anti-malarials and other drugs; even blood donated in Britain was reduced to serum and transported across the world by MAV.
Towards the end of the war in Vietnam, Joan poured her efforts into raising funds for a completely refurbished and re-equipped hospital in the devastated country. This dedication was recognised by the Vietnamese government in 1980, when it awarded her the Order of Friendship. Late in life, she married Jack Askins (see separate entry), a fellow Communist campaigner for the Vietnamese people, who died two years before Joan, who herself died aged 83 on August 6th 1989
Sources: Morning Star (n.d.), Guardian August 16th 1989, and other sources