A history of the British Psychosocial Oncology Society

by Maggie Watson

On November 4th 1983 a small group of us working at the Faith Courtauld Unit [FCU] of King’s College Hospital Medical School organised a one day conference on psychological aspects of cancer. Up to that point there were few people working as psychosocial professionalswith cancer patients. Two or three groups were beginning to develop this research and clinical practice area, notably, as well as the FCU King’s group, were Dr.Peter Maguire and Dr Penny Hopwood (psychiatrists) in Manchester and Dr.Ken Calman[1] (medical oncologist) in Glasgow working alongside Dr.Sid Bindemann (clinical psychologist) and Janette Weir (nurse).

The Faith Courtauld Unit had been set up in the early 1970’s to research a broad-ranging set of topics linked to stress and cancer. The Chairman of the Faith Courtauld Unit Dr. Keith Pettingale, agreed to under-write any costs of holding the 1983 meeting. My colleague Tina Morris worked with me in helping to select speakers and consider the themes for the meeting. At that first meeting every speaker was simply invited (no abstract submissions required!) and details about the meeting were sent around those we knew, with a request to pass on information about this one day conference; no internet or email in those days either!

Dr.Steven Greer[2] (psychiatrist at the FCU] in his opening remarks at the 1983 conference said:

‘For specialists from several major disciplines within Medicine to join behavioural scientists and nurses in a research symposium devoted to psychological aspects of cancer is an event as rare as it is timely.’

Steven’s words reflected a growing interest in the psychosocial oncology area and, importantly, a desire from different professionals to be able to join with others with similar interests in the multi-disciplinary psychosocial care of cancer patients. The conference was a success[3] and in my closing remarks I suggested that we might form a new professional group called the British Psychosocial Oncology Group; calling it a society was too grandiose at that point in our history. So in 1983 BPOG (later BPOS) was born and members, paying a very modest joining fee, found a home for themselves, as people interested in psychosocial oncology, where they could communicate with like-minded professionals.

In 1984 I organised the BPOS Inaugural conference and Dame Cicely Saunders gave a spellbinding opening address where she told the story of how the now world famous St Christopher’s Hospice was established; palliative care like psychosocial oncology was not a sub-specialty of Medicine but a dream still to be realised. Professor Tim McElwain (medical oncologist and founder of the British Oncological Association) was conference chairman. Dr Peter Maguire and Dr Grace Christ (USA) were our invited speakers. The Bursar of Normanby College at Kings College Hospital made the conference venue available to us free of charge; those were the days!

Across the Atlantic in 1984 Dr Jimmie Holland was founding the International Psycho-oncology Society which later held regular congresses in New York and then its first World Congress in France in 1992 co-organised by Dr Robert Zittoun. BPOS held regular annual meetings; 1985 the second (in London at the Institute of Psychiatry) and 1986 the third (in Leicester with Dr Chris Thomas as Co-Organiser). Other BPOS conferences in the early days included, at least two more in London (at the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal Marsden Hospital), as well as in Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester, and in Edinburgh (in no particular order). We had some memorable congress dinners in those early years; on the set of Coronation Street and The Borrowers in Manchester and a whisky distillery in Edinburgh (my personal favourite!) where we enjoyed the convivial company of British professionals determined to improve psychosocial care for themselves – as well cancer patients and their families!

During those early days I was helped and encouraged in establishing BPOS by Elizabeth Skinner who at the time was Head of Education for a very influential charity called the Cancer Research Campaign, later to be renamed Cancer Research UK. Elizabeth played a pivotal role in getting CR-UK to notice the emerging importance of psychosocial oncology, a role later supported by her successor Jean King. Elizabeth’s support for BPOS was recognised when she was made the first Life Fellow of the Society.

In those early days some of my tasks included being Treasurer and Secretary of BPOS and getting BPOS registered as a charity by the Charity Commissioners. We also began to make tape recordings of presentations at our early conferences; although I doubt any of these now exist. BPOG became BPOS and as the society developed a momentum of its own I was able to hand-over to other volunteers the challenging but enjoyable tasks involved in running a society. My reward was to have the Society’s members make me the second person to be given a Life Fellowship. Others have followed since and the rest – as we say – is history. Alongside the development of BPOS it was also important to provide opportunities for dissemination of the increasing amount of research in psychosocial oncology. In 1991, together with Jimmie Holland, we launched the first international journal: Psycho-oncology the recognised journal for BPOS. The research now published in that journal from around the world provides a clear dissemination method for the great research you are all doing and 2013 saw the impact factor reach 3.6 (2 year IF) and 4.1 (5 year IF).

In January 2013 we celebrated the birth of BPOS 30 years ago at a great congress organised by Claire Foster together with Nick Hulbert-Williams and an enthusiastic team in a snowbound Southampton. In 2014 BPOS will have been alive well and flourishing for 31 years, now a mature and respected society of professionals doing what they do best; helping cancer patients, their families and carers. Long may it continue!

Maggie Watson

Founding Member, BPOS.

[1] Later to become Chief Medical Officer for England and co-author of the influential Calman-Hine Report on the organisation and guidelines for improvement of cancer care in the UK.

[2] Greer S. 1985. Psychosocial Aspects of Cancer. In Advances in the Biosciences Vol. 49; pp xi. Pergamon Press.

[3] Anyone wanting to read the Proceedings of the 1983 conference will find these in Psychosocial Aspects of Cancer. In Advances in the Biosciences 1985. Vol. 49 Pergamon Press.