A Partnership in Social Medicine

Medicine and acting are rather different disciplines. This is perhaps why, in the film below, the performance of the (soon-to-be husband-and-wife) team of pioneering doctors, Innes Pearse and George Scott Williamson, is so stilted. Regardless, it is wonderful to get this rare and fleeting glimpse into their world and their work.

In 1883, George Scott Williamson was born in Fife, the eldest of ten children. After studying medicine in Edinburgh, he worked in hospital pathology in Aberdeenshire, Wakefield and Bristol before moving to London in 1920. Over the 1920s and 1930s he worked at the Royal Free Hospital, before the Ear, Nose, and Throat Hospital and St Bartholomew’s.

Innes Hope Pearse was born in Purley, Surrey in 1889 and studied at the London School of Medicine for Women, which had been founded in 1874 by the leading figures of that first generation of women doctors: Sophia Jex-Blake, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Emily and Elizabeth Blackwell. A brief spell working in Bristol was followed by a return to London in 1918.

The two were both researching the thyroid when they started to work together on health promotion, particularly the provision of contraceptive advice for working-class women. More generally, they shared a belief that well-informed individuals should take responsibility for their own health and well-being. This was part of a wider critique of a medical profession that had been too focused on treating sickness, rather than seeking to understand and promote health. To this end they acquired a small house on Queen’s Road in Peckham in April 1926. As well as equipping the property with a new bathroom and consulting rooms, there were changing rooms, a communal kitchen, a playroom and a clubroom. It was not intended to simply be a doctor’s surgery, but a health centre. Moreover, it has been described by Jane Lewis and Barbara Brookes as “a human laboratory, designed to test their belief that health meant more than the absence of disease and that the cultivation of health required a completely different approach from the cure of disease”. For this reason they dubbed themselves the “Peckham Biologists”.

They distributed information about their new Pioneer Health Centre to all homes within easy walking distance for a mother with a pram, inviting whole families to join. Membership would mean a weekly family subscription of 6d. and agreeing to a regular ‘health overhaul’ for each family member. With the doctors available during the Centre’s opening hours of 2-10pm Monday-Saturday, the expectation was that using the Centre would fit into (rather than be an interruption to) the everyday life of the members. By the end of the decade, 115 families had become members. In 1929 the Centre was closed and plans began for something more ambitious. The need for this had been seen not in the services provided, but the study of health in the area. Despite selecting Peckham as a relatively prosperous area, where they anticipated generally good health, they were “greatly astonished” when they examined their new members and found that, for every parent over the age of 25, “without exception there was something to be done and that in many there was frank disease”.

On 27 March 1935 the new centre – featured in the film above – opened on St Mary’s Road, Peckham. The very design of the centre, an expanisve concrete structure, was the modernist construction of Sir Owen Williams. It sought to embody the attitudes towards health that underpinned the whole existence of the centre. London’s second-largest swimming pool was at the heart of this new building, where members could also use a two-floor gymnasium, a self-service cafeteria, a theatre and a long gallery designed for dancing, as well as spaces intended for playing billiards, darts and table tennis or listening to the wireless.  From 1938 members could also buy milk, eggs and vegetables grown on an organic farm in Bormley in Kent, which Pearse had leased a few years earlier. Consulting rooms and a medical laboratory were located in the middle of this hub of healthy activity.

The Peckham Experiment had been a distinctively voluntary project. Unsurprising since, before the First World War, George Williamson had been a fierce opponent of Lloyd George’s National Health Insurance, believing it to cross a line of government interference. In the 1930s, a donation of £10,000 from future Labour minister, Jack Donaldson, aided the voluntary effort that led to the opening of the new centre. A decade later, Labour unexpectedly found itself heading up its first majority government under Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan unexpectedly found himself in charge of the creation of a National Health Service. As the pendulum swung towards state provision, the Pioneer Health Centre found it harder than ever before to raise the necessary funds. Consequently it closed in 1950, two years after the inception of the NHS. The healthy living provision was continued to some extent by the maintenance of the swimming pool by Southwark Council, while the Southwark Adult Education Institute provided educational facilities and another part of the building became the South East London General Practitioners’ Centre. Quite in opposition to its founding principles, the centre’s recreational, educational and medical activities were divided. Today the centre has been converted into housing, while it remains a Listed Building.

The struggle to maintain a foothold in the shifting sands of the mixed economy was only one way in which the Peckham centre sat uneasily with the age of the NHS. As Lewis and Brookes wrote, “few of Williamson and Pearse’s contemporaries and few commentators since have either understood or accepted their attempt to distinguish between health and medicine; thus, the work of the Peckham Health Centre has tended to be reviewed in terms of its contribution to established medical practice rather than as the qualitatively different enterprise it was intended to be”. So the centre has a dual identity within the social history of medicine. It is at once a relic of a very different time, a progressive venture but one whose progressivism was strikingly “consistent with contemporary responses to such interwar social anxieties as urban dissociation, family instability, and the declining birthrate”. The response to which was to engineer certain personal behaviours and forms of social interaction in such a way as to make any attempt to see the experiment a model for today problematic. But it also demonstrates the path not taken. Critics and supporters of the NHS that say it is more of a sickness service will find here an historical illustration of what might have been – something medical journals decried at the time of its closure.

At the heart of this venture had been a crusading couple, pioneering in many respects. Innes Pearse’s professional dedication to the research aspects of social medicine was unusual for a woman at the time (still an issue today). Meanwhile, their holistic focus on food as well as medicine was influential on Lady Eve Balfour, who established the Soil Association in 1946, with both Pearse and Williamson as founding members. They are often referred as a husband-and-wife team, but in fact George Williamson had been married to his wife Nellie for nearly 42 years when she died in 1950. Just a month later, on 20 February at Bromley Register Office, he married his professional partner of three decades. Three years later he died following an aneurysm, while she continued to live in their home – the Mill House in Rotherfield, Sussex – until she died of a pulmonary embolism on Christmas Day in 1978.

Anyone interested in researching the history of the centre can visit the Wellcome Library near Euston in London, where their records as kept. A review of the collection was published by Lesley Hall in the journal Social History of Medicine in 2001.

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2 Replies to “A Partnership in Social Medicine”

  1. Outstanding period architecture. Such a pity, today renovated as residential flats, ugly tennis courts with surrounding chain-link netting and visible residents car parking obscures the aesthetics of a frontage that should have low soft and hard gardens landscaped so as to open up the immediate view to an unimpeded facade.

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