Lives of the fellows

Thérèse Marie Vanier

b.27 February 1923 d.16 June 2014
MB BChir Cantab(1953) MRCP(1959) FRCP(1978)

Thérèse Vanier was a pioneering palliative care physician who established the first L’Arche community for people with learning disabilities in the UK. Until the end of her life, her commitment to greater social justice, particularly for people on society’s margins, remained steadfast, and a continuing inspiration to many.

Thérèse was the eldest child and only daughter of Georges Vanier, the soldier and diplomat who became Governor General of Canada, and his wife Pauline (née Archer), daughter of a Supreme Court judge in Quebec. When the Second World War broke out, her father was stationed in Paris, but when France fell to Germany, the family fled to England; already by the war’s end her organisational and bi-lingual skills had earned her the Croix de Guerre for her services to the Free French Forces.

After the war, she read medicine at the Sorbonne, Girton College, Cambridge, and St Thomas’s Medical School, qualifying in 1953. She held junior posts in paediatrics in Britain, Uganda and North America, and subsequently turned to haematology. She was a research fellow and senior research fellow in haematology at Boston City Hospital from 1960 to 1962, and then became a lecturer in haematology at St Thomas’s Medical School. In 1965 she became the first woman consultant at St Thomas’ Hospital, a post she held until 1972.

Her career then changed radically when she became involved with the L’Arche movement, which her brother Jean had started in France in 1964. She opened the first L’Arche community in Britain, Little Ewell in Kent, and continued to nurture the 10 others that have followed.

At the beginning of the 1970s ‘home’ for too many people with learning disabilities was a bleak hospital ward. L’Arche’s idea that they could not only live in ordinary housing, but do so alongside largely untrained young assistants who chose to share their lives, was radical indeed – and even suspect among professionals for its avowedly spiritual inspiration. The idea has certainly worked: after 50 years L’Arche now has 146 communities in all five continents, home to people of all religions and none, often in areas of great deprivation. And as it grew, Thérèse’s own combination of loving commitment and highly professional standards contributed greatly, adding a rather English practicality and pragmatism to its original Gallic inspiration.

She was not only bi-lingual; she was a gifted interpreter in the best sense of the word, bringing people together and helping them to learn from each other. When she and I worked together on the first in-service training programme for assistants in 1979, she was insistent that the visiting lecturers should be the very best we could find, whether their expertise was in psychology, learning disabilities or spiritual development. That first programme has been followed by many others, and it is in no small part thanks to Thérèse’s continuing insistence on training and support for assistants that L’Arche has grown into the force it is today.

At the same time as her work with L’Arche, she became deeply involved with the development of palliative care with her one-time fellow student Cicely Saunders [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web]. Thérèse was a part-time clinician at St Christopher’s Hospice from 1972 to 1988, and lectured and taught widely as well. In its own tribute to her, the European Association for Palliative Care says that she did more than anyone else to plant the seeds of its principles and practice in mainland Europe and beyond.

When I first met her in the early 1970s, her patrician elegance, flaming white hair and deeply reserved nature made her seem formidable indeed. But as our friendship grew, I soon discovered her humour, which ranged from the wryly ironic to the zany, her genuine modesty, and the spiritual inspiration and love that so consistently underlay everything she did. For me, and I suspect for many, her greatest distinction and most precious legacy remain the qualities she brought to her friendships and achievements.

Thérèse asked a great deal of herself. Her rare integrity demanded that she lived her convictions deeply and sometimes painfully, and her own high standards could make her impatient with people who failed to match her commitment. Her Roman Catholic faith was both an inspiration and a suffering: the divisions between the Christian churches were a great grief to her, and she worked tirelessly for greater ecumenism, bringing people together and interpreting them to each other, in this sphere as in so many others.

Her living rooms over the years were stacked with papers and reports, to be read, discussed and written – about medicine, about ever-increasing local authority regulations, about spiritual thinking and events. Almost to the end of her life, she kept a watching eye on medical politics and practice, and could still become as angered by what she saw as failures in compassion and competence as she was heartened by evidence of their expression. This was no abstract exercise: her concern was fuelled by her deep and sensitive attention to individuals. When she talked about her friends with learning disabilities, it was in exactly the same way that she talked about any others – with the love, humour and flashes of irritation that together are what friendship is about. Vulnerability triggered her immediate concern. I remember visiting her during a fairly lengthy stay in hospital: it was a difficult time for her, but she remained as attentive to the stories and needs of other people on the ward as she was pained and irritated by the lack of proper direction and support for the front-line staff. Even at the very end of her life, a friend reports, her eyes momentarily flickered into focus and she tried to attract a nurse’s attention when a fellow-patient gave a cry of distress.

Thérèse’s Roman Catholic funeral mass was held in the nave of Canterbury Cathedral – a very rare ecumenical honour indeed – but she is buried in a tiny village churchyard alongside friends from that first English L’Arche community. The honour might have amazed her, as much as her resting place would have contented her. The juxtaposition seems a perfect summation of both her achievements and the qualities that inspired them.

Ann Shearer

[The Guardian 29 July 2014; EPAC Blog European Association for Palliative Care Dr Thérèse Vanier pioneer of palliative care in Europe – accessed 19 August 2014; L’Arche International – Thérèse Vanier has passed away – accessed 19 August 2014]

(Volume XII, page web)

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