Dame Sally Davies (notes from a BBC interview)

In this post, there is a list of the advanced words and phrases from the BBC Radio 4 Desert Island Discs interview with Dame Sally Davies. She is the chief medical officer of England.   Aggie and I are currently creating a podcast (in which we will explain some of the words) and it will be launched on 11th October!

You can listen to the interview here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000746z

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Chief medical officer of England 

Most senior advisor to the government on medicine and public health

0:54 Her day job is not for the faint hearted 

0:57 As well as getting politicians to get behind evidence based health policies that won’t necessarily make them more popular 

Obesity crisis, antimicrobial resistance

1:12 Also responsible for the UK’s response to epidemics like bird flu and ebola 

1:18 Developed a reputation for speaking her mind and for making things happen

1:22 As a haematologist she pioneered improvements in care for sickle cell…

Set up the National Institute for Health Research 

1:31 Reorganising how the research was funded in the NHS 

1:34 She puts her organisation down to her upbringing 

→ Parents: theologian and scientist 

1:42 Progress and ethical considerations were equally important 

More interested in influence than in power 


2 ways to do this 

2:07 One is structural, seatbelts, banning smoking in public places, taxes….

2:12 The other is nudging

At the supermarket, take things that are easiest to take

Which prefer? Need combination of both 

2:36 Think what we’re trying to counteract 

Commercial people Spending millions on marketing unhealthy foods

2:52 How receptive are politicians [LL]

3:02 They may not be vote-winners (the advice)

Took 50 years for us to understand the damage that tobacco does, but took 20 years or more to actually achieve ban on smoking 

3:25 You’re remarkable for your formidable energy levels


3:33 Go out jogging a couple of days a week 

3:39 I have to practice what I preach and I do find I feel better for it

3:44 My family joke I have an on switch and an off switch 

Wanted to be a violinist, now goes to lots of operas 

4:01 To wind down, yes I like concerts 


Piece she played 

4:13 I played the viola in the Midland Youth Orchestra

4:19 The depth and beauty of it, it’s wonderful 


Didn’t enjoy school, failed 11+ 

5:52 I had chamber music 

5:56 And on a Sunday afternoon I went sailing

5:58 My mother had a little sailing dinghy, and my sister crewed for her 

Sailing races in the afternoon, even if it was snowing! Would sing ‘Nobody knows how cold my toes are’ !


6:23 Mother was a very strong character 

1st Gen University students 

6:32 Studied natural sciences before they gave degrees to women 

6:41 7 Bus loads of old bats who got their degrees in the 90s 

Father not a frequent church goer 

7:04 Even that petered out 

7:12 Wasn’t going to go and listen to a lousy sermon 

He’d read something either theologian or a good crime novel!


Never had a sleepover, only one boy girl party

7:39 Kept ourselves to ourselves 

Went for amazing holidays (6 weeks) 

8:03 Lots of discussions about ethics 

8:21 We would debate these things quite furiously 

8:31 And him looking a bit aghast (asking a bishop how he was so sure God was real!)

I am fearless I will say what I think needs to be said 


8:54 I still love acapella when it’s mens’ voices singing


Best at sciences and I liked people

10:20 Mother who said you’d better go off and do medicine then 

In our family it wasn’t are you going to go to uni it was what are you going to do and which one

Was told not good enough for oxbridge or london so off I went to Manchester

10:38 Your imagination had been captured by John Watson’s book the double helix

10:49 The most beautiful design (DNA) 

10:58 The basis of life 

11:09 Made up of genes 

11:15 Discovered this beautiful ladder that winds round itself 

Went to interviews, why medicine? Because the double helix - it’s so beautiful! DNA is so fascinating I want to learn more 

11:34 How did you fit in on campus?

11:46 Tried the university orchestra but they were a bit snotty 

11:50 And I demonstrated, against Vietnam and things like that

Bit noisy, developing an elective period for students (Dean of medicine saying to her)

12:11 I’ve got you a scholarship, you’re going to Sweden for 3 months and we can have a bit of peace 


12:25 There was a Saturday night bop at the Student Union 


13:34 Incredibly long hours 

13:43 More intensive when they’re there and they’re pretty anti social (the hours for today’s young doctors)

13:51 I found it quite brutalising 

Young woman in early 20s

13:58 Who’s kidneys had packed up 

14:01 And we didn’t have enough dialysis machines

Drowned in the fluid in her own lungs 

14:10 I was clearly quite sensitive 

14:14 Top of the tree as Chief Medical Officer [LL]


Not happy

How many of them have consultants who know their names?

14:32 Rarely does anyone put a hand up

14:36 Because of the shift system we have young doctors working very heavy hours

14:43 and the pastoral support and the physical support has been taken out 

Well trained but pastoral bit in England is not good enough 

Consultants need time to provide the pastoral care 

15:24 Braked too hard and did a 360 degree skid in front of the ward 

15:31 I sat there feeling a bit shaken 

He said ‘were you going to that interview?’, and he helped out car called and said he’ll call and say she’d do it the next day 

→ Doesn’t happen anymore

15:48 Have to find more humanity in our staff


16:04 Goes back to my time in Spain 

16:15 I was kept sane by an Englishman who taught me Spanish


17:18 Not good as an appendage 

Learnt how to ski, how to cook, how to speak Spanish 

17:36 Looking back of course I learnt about diplomacy + civil service 

17:47 Its been central to my success as CMO 


Philip had leukemia 

You better do it quickly. Very sad

18:27 You must’ve had an extensive understanding of his condition  

18:29 How did you cope 

18:31 By just getting on with it 

How bad society is about death 

18:47 People kept me on an island of silence 

Made me a better doctor I saw what it was like to be on the wrong side of medicine

18:59 I remember when they took him off chemotherapy and we took him home to die 

People wouldn’t go into his room because they didn’t know what to say 

19:16 The ones who went in and chatted to him, stood out  

Interest in antimicrobial resistance came later because it was getting worse and worse 

25,000 a year across Europe were dying from drug resistant infections 

19:55 We have to give voice to this 

19:57 Want the problem brought out into the open, on death certificates for example?

Want to be able to count patients 

Need to look after antibiotics we’ve got 


22.40 A lot of women give up (working)

Had to breastfeed while she was chairing a meeting. When she got angry or irritated, the baby would scream. Didn’t bother about what people thought - was very discreet - a loose top


25.53 said that obesity proved such a threat to women that it should be on a national risk register along with terrorist attacks and natural disasters.

26.40   The cancer research adverts depict a cigarette packet with the strapline ‘obesity is a form of cancer too’.

26.45 They have been heavily criticized for playing into a blame culture around obesity.

Cheaper for poor people to buy unhealthy food

27.53 How do we remove the stigma and the shame from that conversation (LL said that smoking is something that you DO but people ARE obese.)

Have to work with marketers but also have to be honest. 

DSD - Need better weight management services - easier access in the community

29.00 Are they taking this advice on board?  (LL asks what people’s reactions are)

Children’s obesity levels are doubling in primary school.


29.25 He and I crept off on our own one Saturday afternoon (Mama Mia - first time with 5 women)


30.33 We’ve been talking about your plain speaking nature

30.45   Described as nanny in chief (by some colunmists)

30.59 it’s suggesting that I’m wagging my finger (actually giving advice)

Very sexist - the first women of CEO, what are they going to say to the man

Many of the complainants will have had nannies and benefitted from them

31.38 You’re embarking on a new challenge of the first female master of Trinity College Cambridge

32.01 We do need to think about diversity (poorer students, different races)

34.04 I’m about to cast you away to the picturesque solitude of your island.

34.35 What about a luxury item to help while away the hours? 

35.16 an inexhaustible supply (bubble bath)