The 'Hole in the Bucket' in Medical Care the Peckham Experiment Was Not Permitted to Repair - by Government Negligence

By Aitchtey, Rodney | Contemporary Review, May 1995 | Go to article overview

The 'Hole in the Bucket' in Medical Care the Peckham Experiment Was Not Permitted to Repair - by Government Negligence


Aitchtey, Rodney, Contemporary Review


It was sixty years ago, in 1935, that two biologist doctors created the Pioneer Health Centre in Queen's Road, Peckham, south-east London, which became known as the Peckham Experiment, in a building of glass which the well known architect, Walter Gropius, described as 'an oasis of glass in a desert of brick'. The building was described at night as looking like a lit-up ocean liner.

Both biologists, Doctors Innes H. Pearse and G. Scott Williamson were also among the founders of the Soil Association which has grown to be considered as of such great importance. Had the Peckham Experiment been enabled to continue, the same would be said of it, with similar centres all over Britain; and the health of the people ensured.

In The Case for Action and Biologists in Search of Material, 'An Interim Report', the doctors described their startling early findings which had the effect of sending imaginations in sensitive medical circles soaring. Not only among doctors, but also teachers who were so delighted to find confirmation of what they felt to be true, from the Centre's findings with children.

Such great enthusiasm reached the ears of Aneurin Bevan, Minister of Health in the Labour government of 1945, but he chose to listen to the Medical Research Council, the head of which was the knighted and dubbed 'father of statistics', Sir Austin Bradford Hill. Scott Williamson said of the Council's visit that 'they were unable to see the value of research findings that were not reducible to figures'. Such dependence on figures suggests an early example of dehumanization. Had Aneurin Bevan taken the short ride from Westminster to Peckham he would never have forgotten what he saw; and the resulting misnamed National Health Service would have had an entirely different structure which would be holding good today, independent of any high-handed government.

What the Peckham Experiment proved to be missing was the cultivation of health - before disease could take hold. As Samuel Hahnemann, the father of homeopathy, had said, 'There are no sicknesses, there are only sick people'.

It is significant that concern for the state of health of the population should have coincided with that of concern for productivity of the soil. And as pesticides (e.g. DDT) increasingly came to be applied to the land, so pharmaceutical drugs increasingly came to be prescribed for the population, and both now play into the pockets of multinational companies.

The two founders of the Pioneer Health Centre had been practising at the great London Teaching Hospitals. (Innes H. Pearse was the first woman doctor to be Registrar at the London Hospital.) Between 1916 and 1925, it would have been unlikely for George Scott Williamson and his fiancee, Innes Pearse, not to have been drawn to attend one or several of the publicised lectures given by Homer Lane. Or, if not, to have at least read his very important book, Talks to Parents and Teachers, with two parts: 'Talks to Parents and Teachers' and 'Thoughts on the Self-Determination of Small People'. They are Lane's collected lectures published posthumously in 1928, and remained in print until the sixth impression in 1942.

What would have caught the doctors' imaginations, with their 'ethological' rather than 'pathological' interest, is Lane's explanation of the phenomenal changes he achieved in young people, from being so-called criminals to become thinking, self-regulating and self-possessed individuals. The following account illustrates Lances way. One of the magistrates who had committed three what he called, 'criminal children' reluctantly to Lane's care made a point later of visiting Lane's establishment, the Little Commonwealth. He was taken aback by what he saw, and asked Lane, 'What have you done that has made these dreadful hardened criminals into such delightful, free, natural children?' Lane's reply was that he had done nothing: it was simply the real 'nature of the children'.

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