The sociologist Mildred Blaxter, who has died aged 85, played a major role in establishing the foundations of health research – and particularly medical sociology – internationally. It took Mildred until her 40s to “find” sociology: it was, she said, her second life. However, once she had done so, she remained uncannily ahead of the game.
Her first book, The Meaning of Disability (1976), used longitudinal qualitative research – measuring changes over time through in-depth interviews – to explore the experiences of 100 people in the year after discharge from hospital. While American scholars at the time were interested in the interactional strategies disabled people used in gaining social acceptance, Mildred focused instead on the problems created for them by the bureaucratic labyrinth of health and social services and the benefits system. The study was groundbreaking, and its influence was felt well beyond sociology.
Perhaps her most influential study, with Liz Patterson, formed part of the cycles of deprivation research initiated by Sir Keith Joseph as social services secretary in Edward Heath’s Conservative government. Again using longitudinal qualitative research, Mildred aimed to test the controversial hypothesis that deprivation is transmitted between generations through dysfunctional attitudes. The research explored understandings of health and illness among a sample of women born before the establishment of the NHS in 1948 and their daughters. She had to argue ferociously with a funding committee deeply sceptical about qualitative research, but the resultant book, Mothers and Daughters (1982), became a classic.
It demonstrated that while deprivation was shared across the generations, this was not because of attitudes and behaviours transmitted between mothers and daughters, but because of the relentless continuation of poverty and inequality. It also highlighted the restricted way in which “intergenerational” influences were (and still are) understood – as synonymous with the poor parenting of working-class mothers.
As Mildred argued, privilege is also transmitted intergenerationally. In the years that followed she was to be constantly irritated as policymakers returned repeatedly to the discredited “culture of poverty” thesis.
Mildred Hall’s own start in life came in Jesmond, a northern district of Newcastle upon Tyne, as the daughter of a bank manager and an actress. At the start of the second world war, she was sent to Canada, but returned in 1943 aged 18 to join the Women’s Royal Naval Service. Her wartime experience as a signals officer included a spell with the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, once sharing a cup of cocoa with its commander, General Dwight Eisenhower.
After the navy, Mildred was one of very few women to obtain a university place under the reserved places scheme for ex-servicemen. She graduated from St Anne’s College, Oxford, with an MA in English in 1949, intent on a career in journalism, having been the first female assistant editor in the 100-year history of the university’s newspaper, Isis, and its theatre editor. A brief interlude as an unpaid “dogsbody and messenger” on the Daily Express was followed by eight years with the London-based publisher George Newnes.
In 1957 she married Kenneth Blaxter, a natural scientist, and joined him in Ayrshire, Scotland, moving to Aberdeen in 1965 when he was appointed director of the Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health. For almost a decade she concentrated on being a mother and “dutiful wife” (as she put it) to her increasingly high-profile husband, who was knighted in 1977. But with the children in school, she wanted to return to paid work.
Later she spoke of how she was inspired by The Last Refuge, Peter Townsend’s study of old people’s homes, and the “whole tradition of brilliant, old-fashioned, British welfare/socialist, descriptive sociology”. If this was sociology, she said, then she was going to do sociology. Graduating from Aberdeen University in 1972 with an MA in the discipline, she began work in the Medical Research Council’s medical sociology unit in the city.
In 1982, on her husband’s retirement, Mildred moved to the University of East Anglia, where she was promoted to professor of medical sociology in 2000, as well as to Cambridge University. There, as senior sociologist, she took a leading role on the first national survey of health and lifestyles. This allowed her to continue the work on lay perceptions of health begun in Aberdeen and resulted in a bestselling book, Health and Lifestyles (1990).
In her last book, Health: Key Concepts (2004, reprinted 2010), Mildred developed the concept of “health capital” – the idea that health is accumulated and/or depleted by everyday experiences and resources, and varies by social position. She gave sociology a theoretical framework with considerable potential for enhancing our understanding of the causes of health inequalities.
Mildred moved to an honorary professorship at Bristol University in 2003, and retained this position and an honorary position at the University of East Anglia until her death. She had a commitment to combining high-quality, theoretically informed sociology with attention to the implications for policy and practice. She was pitched in at the policy deep end from the start and continued to remain actively engaged throughout her career, chairing, at the age of 81, a group established by the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence to produce recommendations to the NHS on how to promote sustainable behaviour change.
Her publishing expertise also proved to be invaluable. As editor (1987-94), she developed Sociology of Health and Illness (SHI) into an internationally renowned journal and had a major impact as senior editor, sociology, for the international journal Social Science and Medicine (1994-2006). Her finely crafted supportive feedback for early-career authors was a hallmark of her editorial style. She continued as book reviews editor of SHI from 2007 until a few weeks before her death.
Mildred was a gracious and modest woman. Notwithstanding her legacy to social science research and health policy and practice, she was personally most proud of her contribution to establishing a vibrant international community of medical sociology scholars.
Kenneth died in 1991. Mildred is survived by her three children, Alison, Mark and Piers, and seven grandchildren.
• Mildred Blaxter, sociologist, born 27 March 1925; died 29 August 2010