Nigel Crisp

Lord Nigel Crisp is an independent crossbench member of the House of Lords. In addition to that, he chairs the Kings Partners Global Health Advisory Board and the Zambia UK Health Workforce Alliance. He is also an Honorary Professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. Furthermore, between 2000 and 2006, he was the Chief Executive of NHS England and Permanent Secretary of the UK Department of Health. In this interview, we have touched on a wide range of subjects from global health to his recently published book One World Health: An Overview of Global Health. It has been an honour to interview Lord Crisp and we hope you enjoy reading about his journey. 


Q: What is your dinner party monologue for when someone says “and what do you do?”
A: Generally, I just say that I work on health in Africa.

Early Life

Q: Could you tell us about where you grew up; were you a rural or city dweller?
A: I grew up in the countryside, on the borders of Yorkshire and Durham.

I found languages the most frustrating, but they have become very useful in my later life.

Q: What subject(s) did you excel at in school, and which did you find most challenging?
A: Mathematics was my best subject; I found languages the most frustrating, but they have become very useful in my later life.

Q: Did you ever have a eureka moment where you thought, “this is the subject I want to study at university”?
A: No eureka moment as such. I got bored with Mathematics, and Philosophy sounded interesting and full of possibilities.

Academic Education

Regarding your undergraduate studies:

Q: Which University did you study at, and was it your first choice?
A: I studied at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, and yes it was my first choice.

Q: What undergraduate degree did you study for at University, and in hindsight would you select the same subject again?
A: I studied Philosophy – I would possibly do natural sciences instead as that seems to be where the greatest creativity now is.

Q: Can you remember a University lecturer who really inspired you?
A: George Steiner and LC Knights (not my subject – they both taught English but I went to their lectures anyway).

Q: If you had your time as a student again, what would you do, if anything, differently?
A: I would possibly do a bit of sport. I was too busy doing other things at the time.


Q: Could you tell us a little about your professional journey to date?
A: After university I had 4 years in community work and community arts in Liverpool, 5 years running a charity, 3 years managing a production unit in a factory, joined the NHS for 20 years (with the final 6 as the Chief Executive and Permanent Secretary), last 10 years have been working on global health, mainly in Africa while also being an independent member of the House of Lords. As you can see there was no plan – but the diversity of experience has been very valuable and enjoyable.

Q: What do you think is your biggest achievement?
A: Probably should say working with others to implement the NHS Plan between 2000 and 2006, which brought the NHS back from the brink – although it is in trouble again. But I hope I have influenced development policy in the UK, to recognise how much we can learn from low and middle-income countries, and that we should think in terms of co-development rather than international development.

Q: Can you tell us about your current professional focus?
A: At present, I have two areas of focus. The first is global health and Africa – mainly focused on partnerships with UK organisations and the development of the workforce. The second is health creation – building healthy and resilient communities and individuals.

Q: Within your field, what breakthroughs are on the horizon?
A: Some fantastic bioscience in many different areas, linked with insights from computational biology and big data. But also a new emphasis on health as opposed to health care – and I think health creation may be quite big.

Q: Let your imagination take over for a minute and tell us what you hope your successors will be working on in 2116?
A: Ethics and metaphysics – their capabilities in health and every related field will be so enormous that the important questions will be how they use them (and they are pretty important questions today).

The biggest legacy is almost always other people.

Q: What do you feel your professional legacy will be?
A: The biggest legacy is almost always other people – I hope I may have influenced a few people who have gone on to do great things (or will do so).

Current Projects

Q: Are you working on any extra-curricular projects at the moment, such as: books, podcasts, websites, or speaking?
A: Everything I do is extracurricular really. I have just finished a novel and am looking for a publisher. I recently published One World Health – an overview of global health and – in the Lancet with 16 co-authors – A manifesto for a healthy and health-creating society.

Advice and Tips

Q: If you could give your 18-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
A: Quite simply, be bold.

Stay flexible, gather different experiences and knowledge.

Q: What advice would you give someone looking to start, or progress his or her career in your field?
A: Stay flexible, gather different experiences and knowledge, and work with others to create the future.

Q: If you could recommend one book to a novice in your field, what would it be?
A: Read books for enjoyment and to make you think – you will get most of the technical stuff from journals rather than books.


Q: And finally, we are back at the dinner party. Someone offers you a drink, what do you ask for?
A: Depends on the dinner party but probably wine – preferably local, depending on where in the world we are.

If you’d like to find out more about Lord Nigel Crisp you can check out his Parliament profile, personal website and Wikipedia profile.
Feature photo from The Aspen Institute [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], at Flickr.