Peckham Experiment


Reproduced by kind permission of the Pioneer Health Foundation. The text has been scanned by Luke Kelly who volunteered for this tedious job and to whom we are grateful. In one or two places it is corrupted, and if you can suggest corrections we would be grateful.

The Pioneer Health Foundation exists to disseminate the ideas of the Peckham Experiment,and offers the ‘Mary Langman Prize’; an annual award for an essay that furthers the lessons learnt at the Pioneer Health Centre about the social, emotional and environmental contribution health.

Social Medicine Vol 4 no 3 contains some useful articles about the Peckham Experiment

Footnotes have been incorporated into the text in [square brackets]. Photographs, which were collected together, have been inserted into what seems the most appropriate point in the text.


This book has been written to afford an approach for the intelligent layman to the growing content of the modern science of human biology. In the coming years we are all going to discover that we must either learn to understand and live in obedience to the laws of biology—the science of living— thereby coming to live more abundantly : or that by ignoring them our misfortunes must multiply till, heaping up, they ultimately destroy man’s civilisation—and even man himself. The substance of this book has been drawn from the inspiration of and experience gathered under the Directorship of Dr. G. Scott Williamson, Halley Stewart Research Fellow, at the Pioneer Health Centre in Peckham. It is the third of a sequence of four books, of which the first two—”The Case for Action”[Pearse and Williamson (Faber &. Faber, 1931)] and “Biologists in Search of Material” [Staff Report, Pioneer Health Centre (Faber & Faber, 1938)].—have already appeared, and the fourth—”Science, Sanity and Synthesis”—on the scientific principles upon which the experiment is based, is yet to follow. It was the good sense and generous co-operation of the member-families of the Centre which has made such an experiment possible at all, and if any reader finds in the pages of this book that which interests, pleases or illumines him, it is to the members of the Centre, who lived through some difficult as well as many “grand days”, that thanks are due.The work that this book represents was contributed to by every member of the Centre’s staff, the observations of each having been woven into a whole by the authors—a doctor and a biologist ‘curator’ on that staff. Much trouble has been taken to ensure that nothing important to the issue should be omitted, and that the balance of the whole should be preserved in accordance with the facts and happenings as they occurred in the course of the experiment. For her unflagging interest and work in this connection, we wish to express our deep sense of gratitude to Miss Mary Langman, who nominally acting as amanuensis has actually contributed to every page of this book.

The money for the Peckham Experiment has been raised by a Committee of lay people, who have carried a heavy burden of anxiety in finding the necessary funds for experiment on so large a scale. The scale of the experiment was determined by the needs of health; for experience has already taught us that health can only come forth from mutuality of action within a society sufficiently mixed and varied to provide for the needs of mind and spirit as well as of body. The authors trust that all those whose vision and generosity have led them to support the Pioneer Health Centre will see in this book some realisation of their hopes.

The writing of this book has been made possible by a grant from the Halley Stewart Trust, for which the authors wish to express their appreciation.

Innes H. Pearse, Lucy H. Crocker


  1. Living Things
  2. Man in the Making
  3. Basic Technique
  4. The Health Centre
  5. Health Overhaul
  6. Findings of Overhaul
  7. New Member families
  8. The Family Grows
  9. Infancy
  10. School Days
  11. Growing Up
  12. Courtship and Mating
  13. The Birth of a Family
  14. Social Poverty
  15. Social Sufficiency
  16. A Community Grows 

Appendices (mostly tables and diagrams in picture form)

  1. Plan and Notes on the Building
  2. Services and Amenities (not reproduced)
  3. Nature of Employment of members
  4. Specimen of Laboratory Records
  5. Cost of Health Overhaul Table
  6. Prevalence of Iron Deficiency and Worms
  7. Plans for an Educational Experiment
  8. A Child’s Activities
  9. Financial and Administrative
  10. Use of the Centre daily and weekly

To those in despair of Man’s civilization


A lawn, a rabbit hutch, a much loved rabbit hopping about free in the sun. Its owner, a little girl, has heard a noise that fills her with dismay. She rushes out to find that the terrier from next door has escaped into her garden . . . loud barkings, a horrifying scuffle. The inevitable is happening. . . she flings herself to the ground, for she cannot see that dreadful end. Minutes pass, blackness, abysmal horror, when faintly a voice reaches her, “It’s all right, Jennifer, the rabbit’s safe”. The child uncovers her face ; slowly she approaches the hutch: no cry of joy; she turns away in contemplation. Five minutes later she is heard saying to herself. . . “I must remember, always have a good look before, you cry”.


Before beginning to build, it is necessary to know what bricks are to be used, or, in modern terms, what must be the unit of construction. Times and fashions change and with them the units of material construction. So, too, with the constructs of Society; man changes his institutions, his customs and the external circumstances of his life and, in a manner, his own life with them. But Nature’s laws are abiding. In the realms of Matter and Energy about which man has come to know so much, he accepts Nature’s units of construction and works in obedience to her laws. In the realm of Living he has yet to recognise the unit with which Nature works ; and to learn to use that unit. If man is to venture on the rebuilding of Society, he must take nothing for granted. The first question therefore is—With what unit does Nature build in the living world? It is with the answer to this question that this book is concerned, and because that is its subject we publish now what would in less turbulent times have been withheld until the studies that underlie it had reached a fuller measure of maturity. We claim to have defined the unit of Living. It is not the individual; it is the family. This has opened up a new field for experiment into social organisation and has enabled us to contrive the first rude instrument for the exploration of new possibilities. It is not then on theoretical grounds alone but with some basis of experiment and experience that we offer to the student concerned with the structure of Society of the future, an indication of what living unit will give us a living human Society—no matter what variations in detail may be necessary to suit different peoples and different climes.

In Science one thing leads to another. When setting out on a journey of exploration no scientist knows what his ultimate destination may be. Studies on the ill-defined fringes of several branches of Science, particularly that of pathology, have led to new light being thrown, not on Sickness, but on Health. The first indicating finger pointing to the necessity for the study of health came from work on the epidemiology of infectious disorder.

So in 1926 the pioneer “Health Centre” took shape. [For an account of the first Health Centre, and of the sketch plans for the second, see The Case for Action, Pearse  & Williamson. (Faber & Faber, 1931). 2s.] A small house was taken in a South London borough. It was equipped with a consulting room, receptionist’s office, bath and changing room, and one small club-room. Families living in the vicinity were invited to join this Family Club for a small weekly subscription. By the end of three years, 112 families, i.e., some 400 individuals, had joined and all the individuals of these families had presented themselves for periodic health overhaul. Not all had retained their membership throughout that period, but the question had been answered. Under suitable circumstances, there were families who would welcome a Health Service distinct from any sickness service and without being urged by any sense of impending sickness. But perhaps the most outstanding fact learnt by the scientific staff was that although sickness could be detected early, often indeed long before the individual had any idea of its presence, and although it was found that the individuals subject to such disorders were willing and anxious to have them removed and with the assistance made available now took the necessary steps for their removal, it was in many cases useless to eradicate the disorder only to return the individual to the environmental conditions which had induced it. Equally important, it was discovered that in those who manifested no disorder, the standard of health or vitality found was low and could not be raised without suitable equipment for the purpose. In other words, it became clear that while operating efficiently as a sieve for the detection of disease and disorder, periodic health overhaul is ineffective as a health measure in the absence of instruments of health providing conditions in and through which the biological potentiality of the family can find expression. This finding was unforeseen. The issue now became greatly complicated. The possibilities both for the study and for the cultivation of health were opening out and taking on a new aspect. It was decided to shut down the first small Health Centre which was, as it were, a bench test, and to devise an experiment in which not only the technical measure of periodic health overhaul could be employed on a larger scale, but in which there would be available circumstances and material likely to kindle the health of the families examined.

The Pioneer Health Centre, Queen’s Road, Peckham, London, S.E.

plans of the building

Seven long years passed. They were spent in planning the next stage in great detail and in collecting money for a new and larger enterprise—a field experiment it might be called. It was to be a Health Centre to cater for 2,000 families, in which were to be offered consultative services as before, and in which the member-families would find equipment for the exercise of capacities for which there was little or no possible outlet in the ordinary circumstances of their lives. Thus in 1935 the second stage of the Pioneer Health Centre took form. It was a great venture: a social structure to be built with a new unit—not the individual but the family.After eighteen months’ work an interim report was published under the title of Biologists in Search of Material.[ Faber & Faber, 1938. 2s.] In that book many details of the initial procedure, including the technique followed in the periodic health overhaul, were given. These we do not propose to repeat here, for many will have read them, while for those who have not, the report is still available. We must, however, emphasise the major conclusion of that report. It was that the Health Centre with its peculiar technique for dealing with families in a social milieu with simultaneous use of the periodic health overhaul, had provided us with an instrument of analysis not unlike a prism, which interposed in a beam of white light analyses it into its component parts giving a picture of the spectrum, or rainbow. The spectrum that the Centre revealed was, alas, no gay coloured rainbow. It made clear that the populace was composed of three categories:—

  1. those in whom disorder was accompanied by disease 32%
  2. those in whom disorder was masked by compensation, and who therefore appeared in a state of ‘well-being’ 59%
  3. those in whom neither disease, disorder, nor disability were detected—the ‘healthy’9%

The mechanism of the Pioneer Health Centre has made it possible to view and to study discretionately, in the light of these several categories, so-called ‘normal’ families and individuals going about their daily business.[ Biologists in Search of Material, p. 78]

As the experiment has proceeded, the understanding of the scientific staff has deepened, and the theory of Health has been developed and clarified. We can now visualise the essential elements of a technique for the practice of Health as something different and distinct from the practice of Medicine. It is with this subject that the greater part of this book is concerned. The first three chapters range over a wide field, affording a sketch map of the territory into which we are being led, and indicate the principles of growth and development that are beginning to stand out as fundamental to Living. To some, these chapters may seem difficult, leading them into realms with which they are little familiar. Those readers may prefer to skip this portion of the book and pass on to what for them may seem a more human aspect of the experiment, only returning later to the theory—as one returns to the map at the end of a day’s journey—to trace the path along which they have travelled through a close-woven chronicle of human circumstance.

So vivid was the life, so illuminating the understanding that came to those who worked and moved in and with the experiment, that it remains unalterable. The war, passing like the black shadow of an eclipse across the world, has caused the experiment to be suspended, [The Centre’s activities were suspended at the outbreak of war, September, 1939, owing to the inevitable dispersion of the family unit in war conditions,] but live and vibrant beneath what is now a scorched earth, “the Centre” lives to thrust up in a new age. It has already proved itself a ‘living structure’.