Writer, medical researcher and diversity activist
Director of Equality, Department of Health
And we are mistresses
of strong, wild air,
leapers and sounders
of depths and barriers.
Barbara Burford from ‘Women Talking’, 1984
Barbara Burford was a writer and medical researcher. She was a lifelong diversity activist. She came to London from Jamaica with her family in 1955 and studied medicine at London University. She worked for the NHS from 1964 onwards, mainly as a medical researcher. She also led a team at the Institute of Child Health and Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children.
During her years in London, Barbara was active in feminist politics. She was involved with the ‘Explorations in Feminism’ group, with a focus on women’s writing and publishing. She wrote reviews for Spare Rib magazine and wrote a play, poetry and fiction. In 1984 her poetry was included in the book ‘A Dangerous Knowing’ – Four Black Women Poets. In 1986 she published ‘The Threshing Floor’, a novella, and a collection of short stories with lesbian themes.
Her writing came not only from her lesbian identity, but from her complex cultural identity. She was a proud descendant of three different backgrounds: African, Jewish and Scots.
During her time in London, Burford’s daughter Sarah was born – on 25th December 1975. Burford met her partner Joy Howard in 1987 and they they became civil partners in 2007. They lived together until Burford’s death in 2010.
Burford moved to West Yorkshire in 1990 to set up IT systems for the NHS executive. During this time she was awarded an MBA from the University of Durham and she was very proud of this achievement. In 1999 Burford was appointed as Director of Equality and Diversity at the Department of Health. She was 55 years old.
Still based in Leeds Burford began a number of new projects that were widely praised and are now well established. The ‘Jobshop’ was an in-house employment agency. It was adopted and used by many NHS trusts. ‘Positively Diverse’ was an organisational development programme designed to help achieve equality in the NHS. It was introduced throughout the NHS.
Burford went on to become Director of Diversity at the Department for Work and Pensions in 2002. The University of Bradford appointed her as the first deputy director of its Centre for Inclusion and Diversity in 2005. After her retirement she set up a consultancy to carry on her mentoring and coaching work, which she greatly enjoyed.
Following her death the University of Bradford set up the annual Barbara Burford Memorial Lecture. The Barbara Burford Gay Times Honour For Excellence in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) was first awarded in 2017. The Gay Times Honours are named for people whose life stories are a significant milestone in LGBT+ history but who may not be familiar to many younger people.
Burford has been described as generous, courageous, humorous, and dedicated to the work she loved. She was a pioneer in learning and social change and was highly respected. She inspired hundreds of health professionals and managers. Her work helped transform health services in the United Kingdom.