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Alumni Perspective: Val Martin (née Bennett)

Val Martin (née Bennett): Girton 1970

Photo of Val MartinI went "up" to Cambridge in 1970, but my journey was longer than most. Born, brought up and educated in Hong Kong, and the eldest daughter (the third of six children) of an English father and Chinese mother, I was the first in my family to go to University - an enormous privilege and a huge responsibility. Initially, I missed Hong Kong desperately; Cambridge was not the hot, bustling place I was used to, and being female and Eurasian put me in a distinct minority, but I made good friends and slowly found my feet. I gained a breadth of historical knowledge from wide-ranging reading and some outstanding lecturers. The tutorial system sharpened my ability to refine my views and deal with penetrating questions - skills I would use often in future years.

In my final year, a career decision was required. In those days there was no computerised information - I had to rifle through box files in the University Careers Office to see what appealed. Early 70s’ culture imbued us with the desire for a better world, so I was seeking a career with a wider social purpose; I chose the 2-year NHS National Graduate Training Scheme, but deferred my place for two years of Voluntary Service Overseas first.

I married my husband Ben (also a Cambridge graduate) a week after graduation; soon afterwards we left for a remote area of Nigeria to teach in a boys’ Government Secondary School. It was tough, but these were two of the most stimulating and enjoyable years of my career.

On our return, I began work in the NHS, to which I have given all my working life in one guise or another. I trained in Manchester, then moved to the Guy’s group of hospitals in London, where I spent much of the next 15 years.  This was a turbulent time for the NHS, with extensive centralisation of services and closure of many much-loved local hospitals. From 1991, as General Manager and subsequently Chief Executive of Lewisham Hospital, I had to develop facilities, services and staff while simultaneously restructuring care from 3 hospitals onto one site at Lewisham – all under the watchful eyes of the local community, MPs and Councillors.

I was honoured to be awarded an NHS Chief Executive’s Leadership Award in 1994 but I knew Lewisham Hospital would have to offer something special to survive, so we pioneered an innovative, collaborative culture of multidisciplinary working, enhancing the academic contributions our staff were already making in teaching and research. Subsequently, our hospital was awarded “University Hospital” status and praised in the 1997 Turnberg Strategic Review of London Hospitals. I was also privileged to be an Invited Respondent at the King’s Fund President’s Lecture in 1998, in the presence of HRH the Prince of Wales.

I believed that everyone should benefit from Lewisham being a “University Hospital”, and was enthusiastic about facilitating opportunities for all staff, including a basic literacy skills programme for those ancillary staff unable to read or write. I left Lewisham Hospital in 1999; at my leaving “do”, the most emotional tribute I received was when several who had attended that programme proudly read out messages of thanks they had written themselves. 

In 2000, I became a Senior Fellow and subsequently Associate at the King’s Fund, a Health Policy Foundation, where I worked for over 10 years with clinicians and others to improve their leadership capabilities and the health service overall. In addition to leading programmes in the UK and Ireland, I was fortunate to visit Canada, Cuba and Singapore, to share experiences in how to provide effective high-quality health services.

Despite the demands of NHS work, I always enjoyed spending time with my large extended family and I return regularly to my beloved Hong Kong. I am retired now, and although my career has no direct connection to my degree, I know Cambridge gave me the confidence and expertise to tackle the diverse challenges I faced. Reading History taught me to assimilate information rapidly, handle conflicting opinions, defend, debate, and persuade others of the value of alternative views. In every role I have held - including being a mother of three and now a grandmother of five - I have found these skills invaluable in enhancing understanding and trying to move forward for the greater good!