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  David Thomas Pitt (1913–1994), by unknown photographer, 1975 David Thomas Pitt (1913–1994), by unknown photographer, 1975
Pitt, David Thomas, Baron Pitt of Hampstead (1913–1994), general practitioner and politician, was born on 3 October 1913 in Hampstead, St David's, Grenada, British West Indies, the son of Cyril S. L. Pitt. He was educated at St David's Roman Catholic School, Grenada, and Grenada boys' secondary school. In 1932 he won the Grenada scholarship, which allowed its holder to study abroad. He chose to study medicine at Edinburgh University, where he became the first junior president of the students' representative council, manifesting the taste for politics which lasted throughout his lifetime. In later years he maintained that it was his experience of the depression years in Scotland that made him a socialist.

In 1938 Pitt graduated MB and ChB and left Scotland with the intention of becoming involved in Caribbean politics. British Caribbean politicians then assumed that self-government for each of the tiny Caribbean colonies was impractical; federation seemed the only route to independence. Like many of the region's trade unionists and intellectuals, Pitt was a passionate advocate of federation, and like his fellow idealists he regarded the whole of the Caribbean, not just any one island, as his home and his political responsibility. It was in this mood that he returned, and his first job was in St Vincent, as district medical officer. After two years there he left to be house physician at San Fernando Hospital in Trinidad. In 1941 he established his own general practice in San Fernando. He served on the San Fernando town council from 1941 to 1947 (and as deputy mayor from 1946 to 1947), and in 1943 founded and was elected first president of the West Indian National Party, formed to campaign for Trinidadian independence and a Caribbean federation. In 1943 he married Dorothy Elaine Alleyne; they had a son, Bruce, and two daughters, Phyllis and Amanda.

By 1947 it had become apparent that a Caribbean federation was unlikely to be realized, and Pitt, accompanied by his wife and three children, travelled to England to lobby the Attlee government for changes in Trinidad's constitutional status. By 1949 he began to believe that his mission had been a failure and, aware that events in Trinidad and the Caribbean had moved on, he decided to remain in Britain. By the early 1950s he had established his surgery at 200 North Gower Street, London, close to what was then a major area of immigrant settlement around Euston and Camden Town. From 1953 he was again involved in Labour Party politics, largely through the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and later the Boycott Movement (renamed in 1960 the Anti-Apartheid Movement). ‘In the great days of the CND marches’, Joan Lestor recalled, ‘David Pitt was there in the medical unit patching up the blistered feet of the marchers and urging them on. His fear of a nuclear war was real’ (The Independent).

By this time Pitt commanded respect and affection among both Caribbean migrants and left-wing activists. All the Caribbean immigrants in north London knew that he was the only Afro-Caribbean doctor available. Partly as a result, he was in constant demand as a source of help and advice, and as an informal spokesman in the conflicts sparked off by the presence of the migrants. In 1957 he was selected as the Labour Party candidate in Hampstead. Following the Notting Hill riots of 1958, during which he played a notably constructive role, he became the target of an overtly racist campaign in the general election of 1959. He lost the seat, against the electoral trend, but became an iconic figure in the arguments over race in Britain. At the time Pitt was effectively the only black person who exerted any influence in the public and political life of the country. In 1961 the basement of his surgery, which he had made available to the Anti-Apartheid Movement as its headquarters, was attacked by arsonists; the headlines confirmed his importance in the radical politics of the time. Inevitably he became increasingly active in the politics of race and migration. In December 1964, with encouragement from Martin Luther King, he helped to set up the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination and became its first chairman. In 1970, during the heyday of Powellite anti-migrant populism, he stood again for parliament, in Clapham South, defending a Labour majority of 4176. He was defeated by 3120. He never stood again for parliament, but in 1961 he was elected for Hackney to the London county council, and when that body was replaced in 1964 he was elected as a member for Hackney to the Greater London council. He held the position until 1977, serving as chairman in 1974–5.

In 1975 Pitt was created a life peer as Baron Pitt of Hampstead, the area where he had his first surgery and, by a neat irony, the name of the village in Grenada where he was born. He was the second black peer, the first being Baron Constantine. He attended and spoke frequently in the House of Lords while maintaining his general practice. In 1977 he was appointed chairman of the Community Relations Commission, having served as its deputy chairman from 1968 to 1977. In the following year he chaired a commission investigating the recent riots in Bermuda, and his recommendations led to new legislation promoting racial equality there. He chaired Shelter from 1979 until 1990, when he became vice-president. In 1985 he was elected president of the British Medical Association. This last honour was the one that he regarded as the pinnacle of his career, ‘the most distinguished post that any doctor could be offered’ (Daily Telegraph), and reflected both his ethical status and his passionate commitment to his vocation as a general practitioner: a family doctor. A practising Roman Catholic, he opposed surrogate motherhood and its commercial exploitation. He championed firm legislation on embryo and genetic research. As chairman of Shelter he was active in the social services, and in the health, welfare, and education issues for which he had become known during his days as a councillor on the London county council. He remained also an active supporter and campaigner for the Anti-Apartheid Movement. In 1987 he became the first chairman of the Race Equality Unit, initially a unit of the National Institute of Social Work but subsequently (still under Pitt's chairmanship) an independent charity. He died of cancer of the prostate at 11 Lyndhurst Gardens, Camden, London, on 18 December 1994, and was buried in Grenada; he was survived by his wife and three children.

Pitt's life reflected many of the experiences which shaped the communities of Commonwealth migrants who came to live in Britain after the Second World War. His early years were dominated by a colonial system of tutelage, followed by immersion in the politics of nationalism, self-government, and independence. After he migrated to Britain his immediate concern was with the welfare of the migrant communities, and this led him into becoming a central figure in the radical politics of the time. This was a transitional moment which saw his conversion into a local and domestic politician; and by the latter part of his career Pitt had become fully integrated into British political culture. His environment had accepted him, just as he had accepted it. This, for many of the people who knew or who knew of him, defined his public persona. His sense of belonging also shaped his approach to the issues of race and racism into which he was inevitably drawn. During the 1960s his insistence on engaging in electoral politics, along with his style of creating political alliances from his private and personal contacts, seemed too gradual and emollient for some among a migrant generation which was cutting its teeth on images of black men swathed in gunbelts. By the time of his death it had become clear that when Pitt urged young migrants to join the police forces, the civil service, or the political parties, he had simply been ahead of his time in pursuing full integration. ‘An extraordinarily impressive man’, was the verdict of one black parliamentarian, Paul Boateng (private information). His identity as a public figure blended seamlessly with his private conduct and beliefs. The Lord Pitt Foundation was established in 1983 to mark Pitt's seventieth birthday, and after his death he was commemorated by an annual Lord Pitt memorial lecture, organized by the Race Equality Unit.

Mike Phillips

Sources  

The Times (19 Dec 1994) · Daily Telegraph (19 Dec 1994) · The Guardian (19 Dec 1994) · The Independent (20 Dec 1994) · WWW · personal knowledge (2004) · private information (2004) · d. cert. · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1995)

Archives  

St George's University, Grenada, personal and public papers

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA


Likenesses  

photograph, 1961, repro. in The Independent · photograph, 1968, repro. in The Guardian · photograph, 1975, Hult. Arch. [see illus.] · photograph, repro. in The Times · photograph, repro. in Daily Telegraph

Wealth at death  

£224,380: probate, 4 April 1995, CGPLA Eng. & Wales