Peckham Experiment (UK, 1926-1950: www.thephf.org): Evidence of our behavioural & health potential
The Peckham Experiment into Health Ecology: An Old Study with Modern Implications
The Peckham Experiment was conducted at the Pioneer Health Centre, in a part of London called Peckham, in a period just before and just after WWII. Despite differences between societies then and now, I consider that much may be learned from this ground-breaking experiment into health. Both the Centre and the Experiment were initiated by Dr. Scott Williamson and his wife Dr. Innes Pearse to discover the ‘causes of health’. They had conducted health surveys in London and were disturbed to find firstly that only 10% of the population had no detectable disorders, secondly that 80% of those with disorders were unaware of their condition, and thirdly that although medical intervention may alleviate some of these conditions, they did not significantly alter these above statistics. They regarded themselves as ‘biologists’ rather than medical researchers in their pursuit of the causes of health. With money from the Nuffield Foundation and Jack Donaldson they were able to build and in 1935 open the Centre, which was designed to meet the recreational, communal and health needs of the local population, who paid a small weekly family membership fee to be have access to the resources of this ‘Club’. In exchange for this, they agreed to their activities and health status being monitored by the doctors. For further notes on the design of the Centre see Peck (1980).
Throughout the 15-year period during which the Centre functioned in this way, over 1,000 families used it and it received over 10,000 visitors a year. Eight books (see especially Stallibrass 1989, Being Me and Also Us) have been written and two films have been made about the Peckham Experiment. Many of those associated with it believe that it is the most important experiment in health that has ever been conducted, and that if the lessons learned were implemented around the world today the gains in health and wellbeing would be enormous. The description of the experiment and some of its most important findings are summarised in the following dot-points.
Evidence of our Behavioural and Health Potential (Peckham Experiment, U.K., 1926-1950)
- Over 1,000 families (up to 550 at any one time)
- Access to a range of facilities (pool, gym etc.)
- Glass walls (all activity areas visually accessible)
- Free to choose activities (but recorded)
- Minimal supervision
- Organic cafeteria (linked to organic farm)
- Annual ‘health’ audit as a family (where you ‘stand’)
- Access to essential information (talks, referrals, networking, interest-groups, gossip etc.)
Initial 6- to18-month period of relative chaos (a necessary pre-requisite and recurring stage)
- Switch from living ‘in-response’ (from the outside-in) to ‘proactively’ (from the inside-out)
Subsequent 12 years (4 years pre-WWII, WWII [closed], 4 years after):
- No marriage breakdowns
- No bullying and only one accident
- Low interest and participation in competitive games
- High-level collaboration and joint projects
- High skill acquisition
- Improved health and wellbeing
- Increased creativity
- Supportive environment
- Freedom to be spontaneous
- Non-judgemental feedback
- Supportive vs. intrusive/manipulative staff
- Support during narrow windows of change (puberty, forming primary relationships, pregnancy, birth etc.)
Health: (a process)
- Facility for mutual synthesis with others and the environment
All of its numerous important discoveries coalesced around the central concept that health is a process (not a product) that requires freedom and opportunity to experience being in a relationship of mutual synthesis with the environment. Health is thus emergent from acts of spontaneity, and being fully engaged in the present. What the Centre provided was a context and an approach to activity enablement that supported and facilitated such freedom, experience and spontaneity. Indeed, in such an environment, they found that health became ‘contagious’. Of particular importance was the preparation for and subsequent caring for an addition to a family.
Barlow, K 1988. Recognising Health. Kenneth Barlow, 24 Paddington St., London W1M 4DR. 142 pp.
Pearse, IH 1979. The Quality of Life: The Peckham Approach to Human Ethology. Scottish Academic, Edinburgh. 194 pp.
Pearse, IH & LH Crocker 1943. The Peckham Experiment: A Study of the livings Structure of Society. Allen & Unwin, London (rpr. Scottish Academic, Edinburgh; 1985). 333 pp.
Pearse, IH & GS Willamson 1931. The Case for Action. Faber & Faber, London (rpr. Scottish Academic, Edinburgh; 1985). 162 pp.
Peck, AJA 1980. The Vision Splendid: Agoric Planning. Three Sisters Books, P.O. Box 2506, Harare, Zimbabwe. 98 pp.
Scott-Samuel, A (ed.) 1992. Total Participation, Total Health: Re-inventing the Peckham Health Centre for the 1990s. Scottish Academic, Edinburgh. 48 pp. [http://www.gseu.org.uk/people/scott.htm]
Stallibrass, A 1974. The Self-Respecting Child. Thames & Hudson, London (rpr. Penguin 1978, Warner 1979, Addison-Wesley 1989). 341 pp.
Stallibrass, A 1989. Being Me and Also Us: Lessons from the Peckham Experiment. Scottish Academic, Edinburgh. 275 pp.
Williamson, GS & IH Pearse 1938. Biologists in Search of Material. Faber & Faber, London (rpr. Scottish Academic, Edinburgh; 1985). 107 pp.
Williamson, GS & IH Pearse 1965. Science, Synthesis and Sanity: An Enquiry into the Nature of Living. (rpr. Scottish Academic, Edinburgh, 1986). 352 pp.
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