The oldest non-executive director in the country, Sir Sidney Hamburger has devoted his career to the staunch support of the NHS. Jeremy Davies reports

The psychologist Carl Jung wrote that 'the afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life's morning'. Sir Sidney Hamburger, 86, new non-executive director of Salford Mental Health Services trust, is living proof that the same can sometimes be said of life's evening.

His post is the latest in an almost endless list of public service roles (see box). Born in 1914, he served in the Second World War and began his own lighting business in 1946.He was elected to the council the same year, and was mayor of Salford from 1968-69.He has been a JP since 1957. From 1973-82, Sir Sidney was chair of North Western regional health authority.

Known at that time as a Labour supporter of strong principle, he won a reputation as a tough negotiator. His pleas for greater funding equity for the region relative to the south east, and for extra cash to counterbalance a 'backlog of neglect', led the then social services secretary, Barbara Castle, to form the resource allocation working party.

Sir Sidney remembers with pride his quote on a 1975 cover of HSJ: 'For a man down south who has always had cream on his strawberries, it's deprivation to leave him with just strawberries.'

The late 1970s was a tough time financially for the NHS, and Sir Sidney was not afraid to put his money where his mouth was.

From 1976 until the end of his tenure as chair he gave up his£2,000 salary, as his 'contribution to defeating inflation', explaining: 'We were battling for salary increases, especially for nurses, who were being offered 3 per cent while chief executives and the like were coming out with 9 per cent.'

He adds: 'It's hard to fight whoever's in power when you're on the payroll.'

Perhaps inevitably, Sir Sidney found himself on a collision course with the Thatcher administration; his biographer, Bill Williams, says the then social services secretary, Norman Fowler, decided not to reappoint Sir Sidney in 1982 because he was 'a risk the government was no longer prepared to take'.

Sir Sidney now describes himself as 'apolitical', and recent colleagues wax lyrical not so much about his fiery convictions as his wisdom, integrity and kindness.

Boyd Farrar, general manager of Heathlands, an elderly people's home established by Manchester Jewish Homes for the Aged, describes him as 'a wise man' and 'born leader' with a razor-sharp mind.

Sharon Brearley, director of Age Concern Salford, says that during his early 80s Sir Sidney chaired the organisation through a 10-fold increase in staff, the establishment of two day centres, advocacy services, and a 'buddy scheme' for families of dementia sufferers. He is 'an extraordinary man whose appetite for work is enormous', she says.

Trish Jones, secretary of North West Action on Smoking and Health, says: 'He is so kind on a personal level, and even now professionally he's a brilliant networker but also keeps a close eye on the detail.'

On his new role, Sir Sidney is humble: 'I acknowledge that at 86, the minister pays me, and I'm not going in planning to make huge changes. I have a lot of learning to do. 'He already shows signs of having identified the crux of the job.

'Mental health is a sphere that's not popular or highly regarded.

Society is becoming more understanding of people with mental health problems, but there's a long way to go to make them as sympathetic as they are towards someone with a broken leg.'

If anyone can bring about such change, Sir Sidney is probably the man for the job.