‘Helping the Disabled to Live to Capacity’: rediscovering Dr Margaret Agerholm through parliamentary history

Over the past few weeks UK Heritage institutions have been marking Disability History Month, and in today’s blog we hear from Dr Emmeline Ledgerwood, the History of Parliament’s Oral History Project Manager. Listening to the project’s interview with former MP Sir John Hannam sparked a research trail that led her towards a key figure in disability rights campaigning: Dr Margaret Agerholm.

In his interview for the History of Parliament oral history project, Sir John Hannam (MP for Exeter 1970-97) referred in detail to his extensive activities campaigning for disability rights, especially in his role as an officer of the All Party Disablement Group (APDG) (now known as the All-Party Group Parliamentary Group for Disability).

Photograph of bust and head of Sir John Hannam. He is looking forward with thinning, greying hair. He has blue eyes and a slight smile. He is wearing a blue shirt, dark suit jacket, and a checked tie.
Sir John Hannam, via Wikimedia Commons.

Alf Morris (MP for Manchester Wythenshawe 1964-97) and Jack Ashley (MP for Stoke-on-Trent South 1966-1992) were instrumental in setting up the APDG in 1969. Two years earlier Ashley had suffered the total loss of his hearing: “I was plunged into a new, blank world … whenever I walked into the Chamber I was struck by the absolute silence of the greatest debating forum in the land.” When Morris won first place the Private Member’s Bill ballot in 1969, Morris consulted Ashley about tabling a Bill concerned with disability rights. In 1970  the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act entered the statute book, and in 1974 Morris became the first Minister for the Disabled in the world.

Sir John Hannam by Philip Aylett
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Hannam described the APDG as “the strongest backbench lobby group [Parliament] had ever had.” The records of the APDG testify to the range of issues the group tackled and also serve as a record of the many individuals and organisations from outside Parliament whose expertise and commitment to the rights of the disabled helped the APDG to drive legislation forward.

This is where I first came across the name of Dr Margaret Agerholm when she is listed among the attendees of the 1984 meeting to discuss the Oglesby report. She was there in her capacity as chair of a working party at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. The minutes of the meeting indicate she was a long-standing actor in this parliamentary sphere, referring to her earlier association with Sir Hugh Rossi (MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, 1966-83) during Rossi’s time as Minister for Social Security during the early 1980s. The minutes also give a sense of Agerholm’s forthright criticism of any inadequacies she identified in public policy for the disabled, contradicting Rossi over what she considered the “poor quality of the review and its report.”

Heading: Summary of the activities of the All Party Disablement Group, Session 1983/84
1983: 5 July, election of Officers and discussion on priorities in the new Parliament. 26 July, The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons (Amendment) Bill. 1 November, RADAR. 15 November, The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons (Amendment) Bill. 29 November, MENCAP. 13 December, Tony Newton MP, Minister for the Disabled.
1984: 24 January, The Charities VAT Reform Group. 7 February, The British Kidney Patient Association. 14 February, Discussion on the Health and Social Security Bill. 6 March, The Spastics [sic] Society. 20 March, Discussion on the Public Transport needs of people with disabilities. 3 April, The Oglesby Report. 1 May, Alf Morris MP, Opposition Spokesman for Disabled People. 15 May, The Committee of Inquiry into the Arts and Disabled People.
Summary of the activities of the APDG, Session 1983/84. (c) LSE archives.

This was someone who was evidently recognised as an expert in her field and confident about the contribution she brought to discussions about advancing disability rights, yet I was surprised to find very little information about her online. What follows shows how the History of Parliament’s collection of interviews with former MPs can kick-start research into many aspects of twentieth-century parliamentary history. Who exactly was Margaret Agerholm and where does she fit into our understanding of British disability history?

I began with a search of Google Scholar. From early work with Professor Josep Trueta into the epidemiology and prevention of polio she developed into a leading and practical authority on the rehabilitation of disabled people. In a 1964 talk she explained that with polio “we were faced with an appalling accumulation of severely disabled, but still alert and enterprising, people, for whose problems standard rehabilitation practice was not always adequate.”

The title of that talk, ‘Helping the Disabled to Live to Capacity’, sums up what I went on to discover about Agerholm’s working life and personal ethos. Thanks to one of those enterprising people I found another reference to her online. Geoff Webb had contracted polio in 1959 and made a recording about adjusting to life as a disabled person which is part of the British Library’s Disability Voices collection. “The Nuffield was a very different kettle of fish to the acute ward I had been in. It was human and everybody was so kind and understanding. Dr Margaret Agerholm was in charge of polio patients and her one mission in life was to get people like me back into society. Within a few weeks she had me getting in and out of bed using hydraulic power instead of a troop of nurses. She lost no time in making me work out plans to set up home on my own.”

I made further headway when I found a brief mention of Agerholm in the philosopher Mary Midgley’s memoir, since Midgley and Agerholm were both students at Somerville College, Oxford University in the late 1930s.

Myers, Margaret (Mrs. Agerholm): b. Nov. 1917, in Canada; d. of Kenneth Mysers. Ed. Downe House; Somerville, 1936-40; 1st B.M., 1940; Dr. John Radcliffe Prize (bracketed), 1942; 2nd B.M., 1942; B.A., 1940; B.M., B.Ch., 1943; MA., 1951. House Surgeon, Royal Infirmary Sheffield, 1943; Asst., Wingfield Hosp., 1943; House Surgeon to Professor Trueta, 1944; Asst to Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery, 1951; Lecturer in Nuffield Dept. of Orthopaedic Surgery, Oxford, 1951-64; Consultant in Phys. Med., Banstead Rehabilitation Centre since 1964, and to 3 centres of Spastics [sic] Socy. since 1965; Trustee of Cheshire Foundation since 1965; Consultant Psychiatrist (Locum) Queen Mary's Hosp. for Children, Carshalton since 1969. Publications: "Hand-book on Poliomyeltis" (with Prof. Trueta and B. K. Wilson) (1956); "Equipment for the Disabled" (with E. M. Hollings and W. M. Williams) (1960); articles in Physiotherapy, Lancet, Rehabilitation, Multiple Sclerosis Journal, etc.; joint author of contributions to Lancet, Postgraduate Medical Journal, The Almoner, etc. m. 1945, Johannes Agerholm, Dr.Med. (died); two s., one d. Address: 3 Downside Court, Downs Lane, Leatherhead, Surrey.
Extract from the 1971 Somerville College register. (c) Principal and Fellows of Somerville College, Oxford.

However it was a few random messages to Twitter users called Agerholm where I struck lucky, connecting with Agerholm’s daughter who was delighted to show me boxes of her mother’s papers. From those papers and her daughter’s stories a clear picture of this impressive medical woman has emerged: intelligent, compassionate, determined – an independent thinker whose work transformed the lives of many disabled people.  

A sepia photograph of the bust and head of Margaret Agerholm. She is looking front. She has short, dark hair, and is wearing a top and jacket.
Dr Margaret Agerholm. (c) Agerholm family.

Margaret Agerholm (née Myers), born 1917, was known as Greta to her family and friends. At Somerville they included Midgley, Mary Pickard (née Cozens-Hardy), Pamela Schiele and Anne Cobbe (Cobbe later became godmother to one of Agerholm’s sons). Agerholm, Midgley, Cozens-Hardy and Cobbe had all been schoolgirls at Downe House where they were taught History by an old Somervillian, Jean Rowntree. Pickard remembered that “at that time it was considered the natural thing for anyone with sufficient academic gifts to take Somerville entrance in History”, the subject in which Agerholm began her undergraduate studies in 1936. However within a year she had decided she didn’t agree with the way History was being taught and switched to medicine, despite her limited science education. According to her daughter, “she had to teach herself science” and did it so successfully that in 1942 she won the John Radcliffe Clinical Prize.

Letters of recommendation during Agerholm’s early career describe her as an outstanding student, highly intelligent and industrious with a quiet and amusing sense of humour: “she is a woman of strong character, and clear ideas which she has no hesitation in expressing.” One of her first roles was as a graduate assistant in the Nuffield Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and it was there that she met her husband John Agerholm, a Danish orthopaedic surgeon, whom she married in 1945. They had three children before the marriage ended in divorce in the mid-1950s.

By then Agerholm was working as a lecturer at the Nuffield. She continued collaborating with Trueta and led on the design, establishment and running of Mary Marlborough Lodge, a dedicated disabled living research unit which opened in 1960. Her patients included around 70 children referred to the unit who had been severely affected by thalidomide.

A black and white photograph of five people. On the far left is a female nurse with dark hair pinned up and wearing a white uniform with belt, next is a woman sat in a wheelchair with dark curled hair and wearing a long buttoned coat and shoes, next is a woman stood pointing, she is wearing a hat, skirt suit, necklace and holding a bag, next a woman with short dark hair, wearing academic robes and a dress, on the end right is a man with thinning, light hair, wearing a suit with academic robes. They are in a room with book shelves and a painting.
The Duchess of Kent at the opening of the Mary Marlborough Lodge. Dr Margaret Agerholm and Professor Trueta are on her left. The names of the other two people in the photo are not known.
(c) Agerholm family.

It was during this time that she worked with Elizabeth Hollings, the Nuffield’s head occupational therapist, and Wanda Williams, warden of the Mary Marlborough Lodge, to produce Equipment for the Disabled: An Index of Aids and Ideas. The index was designed to allow patients and their families to choose for themselves the options which might be the most helpful.

Four blue/grey folders/books stacked on top of eachother. The spine is in view. They are titled 'Equipment for the disabled' and it has (from top to bottom) volume 1, 2, 3, and 4.
Equipment for the Disabled: An Index of Aids and Ideas (four volumes).

In 1965 Agerholm moved from Oxford to Surrey, taking up consultant positions at Banstead Place Rehabilitation Centre and with the Inner London Education Authority. In the latter part of her career she worked at Henan House, a residential rehabilitation centre attached to St Joseph’s Hospice in Hackney.

A black and white photograph of Margaret Agerholm sat behind a desk answering the phone. She has light, short hair and is wearing a light coloured top and dark jacket. The room has a desk, two chairs, and a cabinet. The desk is filled with lots of papers.
Dr Margaret Agerholm. (c) Agerholm family.

As her experience broadened, Agerholm became convinced of the need to develop a classification and nomenclature of handicap. She saw a universal language as essential in breaking down barriers of communication between medical and social service professionals while enabling disabled people to access the benefits and services to which they were entitled. She also saw it as an important element in the drafting of effective insurance and legal documentation.

A title cover of an article. Titled 'Handicaps and the Handicapped: A Nomenclature and Classification of Intrinsic Handicaps' the author is 'Dr Margaret Agerholm'. At the bottom of the cover it has the price '50p' and the publishing information: 'An Outset: Disablement Information Unit Publication'. There is a symbol of a person in a wheelchair.
Handicaps and the Handicapped: A Nomenclature and Classification of Intrinsic Handicaps. (c) Agerholm family.

Agerholm promoted her publications across her network of professionals, practitioners and policy-makers, notifying MPs such as Alf Morris and arguing her case in the journals of the Medico-Legal Society, the Royal Society of Health and at seminars such as one hosted by the Department for Health and Social Security. Her papers contain correspondence with a wide range of MPs (many of whom belonged to the APDG), civil servants in Whitehall and campaigning organisations, and annotated copies of Hansard debates demonstrate the attention she paid to every change in the relevant legislation.

She understood where influence lay, communicating vigorously with those who could potentially effect positive change for the disabled – her neighbours remembered “the strangely comforting clatter of her typewriter next door, at all hours of the day and night!” Her story illuminates the vast network of experts that support and inform the work of parliamentarians in developing and changing public policy. As her friend Pickard wrote, she was “candid in her criticisms.” Letters published in peer-reviewed journals demonstrate how her detailed knowledge of the provision of services for the disabled enabled her to point out where government decisions were failing rather than improving her patients’ situations.  

Agerholm also had aspirations to shape politics from the inside. She was a long-standing member of the Liberal Party, and ran as a Liberal candidate in her local elections in 1976. Yet she did not need political office to transform the lives of those she cared for. Tributes received on her death in 1986 indicate the extent of her dedication and influence. “Her professional expertise, courage, forthrightness, dislike of petty officialdom and the warmth of her personality made her an unforgettable person.” “A Herculian authority in this field of rehabilitation and her pioneer work helped to establish it as a reputable and scientifically based speciality.” “A tireless campaigner, never afraid to offend those in authority by her plain speaking and totally without any sort of personal ambition.”

A full body photograph of Dr Margaret Agerholm sat down on a bench in front of a stone wall that is wrapped in ivy. Agerholm is smiling, her left hand is touching her necklace and her right arm is resting on the back of the bench. Her legs are crossed. She is bearing a black top, beige skirt, and brown shoes.
Dr Margaret Agerholm. (c) Agerholm family.

Dr Margaret Agerholm, b. 27 November 1917, d. 25 December 1986.

With many thanks to Margaret Agerholm’s family and the archivists at Somerville College and Oxfordshire Health Archives for their assistance.

Further reading

Margaret Agerholm, ‘Helping the Disabled to Live to Capacity’, British Council for Rehabilitation of the Disabled (1964).

Margaret Agerholm, ‘The Changing Character of Disability, 1972’, Physiotherapy, 58(9) (1972).

Jack Ashley, Journey into Silence (1973).

‘Trueta: Surgeon in War and Peace’: the memoirs of Josep Trueta, MD, FRCS, DSc, tr. Meli and Michael Strubell (1980).

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