Wednesday Geek Woman: Barbara Burford, medical scientist, writer and diversity activist

This is a guest post.

Barbara Burford (1944–2010) was a medical scientist; a writer of fiction, plays and poetry; and a lifelong diversity activist. All these things she did with love, skill, panache and unfailing courage and good humour. It was a privilege and an inspiration to know her.

Born in Jamaica, Barbara moved in 1955 to England and subsequently studied at the University of London. She went on to specialise in electron microscopy and the work that she led at the Institute of Child Health and Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children was central to several advances in heart and lung transplants for children in the 1980s.

At the same time as pursing her medical research, Barbara was active in UK feminist politics and publishing plays, poetry, short stories and a novella. In 1984, she contributed to the first Black British women’s poetry anthology: A Dangerous Knowing – Four Black Women Poets, and her play Patterns was produced at the Drill Hall theatre. In 1986, she published The Threshing Floor, a collection of stories including the title novella which is still a regular recommendation on school and Further Education reading lists in the UK and US. Her writing was informed not only by her lesbian identity but by her complex cultural identity “as a descendant of three different diasporas: African, Jewish and Scots.’

In the 90s, Barbara moved away from London and out of medical research, first into IT and then to pioneer diversity initiatives in the National Health Service and the Civil Service. From 1999, she served as director of equality and diversity at the Department of Health; from 2002 to 2005 she was director of diversity at the Department for Work and Pensions; and from 2005 onwards she was deputy director of the Centre for Inclusion and Diversity at the School of Health Studies, Bradford University as well as running her own consultancy. Many of Barbara’s initiatives are now well-established within the National Health Service and the Civil Service, and so have a lasting impact in the UK workplace.

And we are mistresses
of strong, wild air,
leapers and sounders
of depths and barriers.

Barbara Burford, “Women Talking”, 1984

The Guardian: Obituary
Barnes and Noble: The Threshing Floor
Amazon: A Dangerous Knowing — four black women poets
Barbara Burford Consulting: Barbara Burford’s diversity work

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