by Lisa Soverall, Heritage Officer
In thinking about our health and how we are all looking after ourselves and our loved ones during this COVID-19 pandemic, it’s interesting to think about how health has been researched in the past. How did health professionals view its meaning and what did it mean to have good health? In this blog, I want to look at the Pioneer Health Centre which began life in 1926 in Queens Road, Peckham by Dr George Scott Williamson and Dr Innes Pearse. The Centre was a place where a community of families took part in a range of activities designed to be advantageous to their physical and mental health as part of an experiment to research and advance health. Does their health vision still have relevance today?
Who were Pearse and Williamson and what was the motivation behind the Pioneer Health Centre?
Before going on to say something about the Pioneer Health Centre it’s probably useful to say something about the doctors who started it which I think reveals much about their motivation and ambition to see it succeed.
George Scott Williamson was born in Fife, Scotland in 1884 and was the eldest child of seven siblings. He was awarded the Military Cross for his services in charge of the Field Ambulance Unit during the First World War. From 1920 to 1935 he was a pathologist at both the Royal Free Hospital in London and the Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital. During this time Williamson also undertook medical research into the thyroid gland which he continued at St Bartholomew’s Hospital.
Williamson’s interest in health was probably started by an early experience he had whilst caring for his brother who was sick with Diphtheria. Williamson would come into close contact with him, even clearing his throat of phlegm with his own fingers, but never actually contracted the disease himself. A similar experience was to occur in a hospital in 1899 when he was 16. Williamson was thought to have had scarlet fever and put on a scarlet fever ward. It turned out that he’d never contracted the disease. He pondered the question of why some people became ill while others did not. So, he decided to study pathology to understand the processes involved in disease. Fundamental to Williamson’s research, however, particularly that which was undertaken at the Pioneer Health Centre with Dr Innes Pearse, was the importance that a person’s social as well as physical environment were to health.
Innes Hope Pearse was born in 1889 and was an only child. She chose to study medicine because she felt it would give her independence as a woman. She qualified as a doctor in 1916 at the Royal Free Hospital and later worked at both Bristol Hospital for Children and Women and the Great Northern Hospital. She went on to become the first woman medical registrar at the London Hospital and later, at the Royal Free Hospital where she met George Scott Williamson and assisted him in his work on the thyroid gland.
Around the 1920s Dr Williamson was becoming interested in the notion of what health was. He questioned whether curing a disorder was the same thing as giving an individual health and on this question there was very little research. So too, Dr Pearse’s work with children led to the realisation that despite her extensive knowledge about them, she did not know what a healthy child looked or behaved like!
The First Health Centre
One of the questions that Pearse and Williamson asked as part of their research was, ‘What happens to an individual and communities when they have health and how would that impact on society and future generations?’ If you flip this question and ask what happens when a community has bad health, the answer may be more obvious. These were the kinds of questions that led the doctors to undertake their first study into the nature of health by setting up a family health club in a small house on Queen’s Road, Peckham in 1926 – the first Pioneer Health Centre.
Peckham in south London was chosen because at that time it was a fairly prosperous area inhabited mostly by artisan families and with a good number of shopkeepers, clerics, small business owners and a few labourers. There was very little poverty and employment was high. It was presumed, therefore, that the levels of health would be high.
Families from the local area could use the centre as a family club but in order to do so they had to agree to have a ‘health overhaul’. This allowed the doctors to study the health of the families. The ‘centre’ included a consulting room, a nursery and a small club room where mothers could meet in the afternoons with their children and in the evenings parents could spend time together too. The building was open everyday from 2pm to 10pm and members could make appointments for their overhaul to suit themselves. It came as a surprise to the doctors when their studies revealed that despite being relatively well off and having a number of health resources available to them like a swimming bath and sports clubs in the borough, there was a lack of “vitality” within the families themselves, even amongst those who had no disease or disorder. Peckham was a crowded area and although people had next door neighbours they were often without friends and felt isolated. There was evidence that people were not living to their full capacity and there was a great deal of lethargy.
In part 2 we’ll look at how Pearse and Williamson found solutions to these problems with a new purpose-built centre.