The Peckham Experiment
George Scott Williamson (1884-1953) and Innes Hope Pearse (1889-1978), a husband and wife team, opened the Pioneer Health Centre in an area - Peckham, south east London, which was chosen because "this populace roughly represents a cross-section of the total populace of the nation with as widely differing a cultural admixture as it is possible to find in any circumscribed metropolitan area" - in a house in Queen's Road SE5 in 1926.  Their aim was to study health as a medical condition in a manner comparable to studies of the natural history of disease. The first phase closed in 1929. The findings were disseminated, and funding was then sought to build a larger, purpose-designed, centre. This re-opened in 1935 in a purpose-built Modern building in St Mary's Road, often quoted as an early example of how new architectural techniques could help further bold new social experiments.
Williamson and Pearse recruited 950 local families to be part of "The Peckham Experiment". Paying one shilling (5 pence) a week, they had access to a range of activities such as physical exercise, swimming, games and workshops. Members underwent a medical examination once a year, and they were monitored throughout the year as they participated in the Centre’s events. Central to Scott Williamson's philosophy was the belief that left to themselves people would spontaneously begin to organize in a creative way, and this happened, the members initiating a wide range of sporting, social and cultural activities using the facilities offered by the Centre.
The Pioneer Centre was designed by Sir Owen Williams and moved away from the idea of traditional lines dominating medical buildings. Williams created a large open space using the latest structural techniques allowing the Centre's doctors to properly observe the members. At the middle of the Centre a large swimming pool was covered by a glazed roof, which, along with large areas of windows, allowed natural light into the building. These windows could be fully opened to circulate fresh air into the building. The cork floors allowed people to move about barefoot.
The Centre went into abeyance during the Second World War, but was restored to a condition fit for re-opening by the members themselves. In 1950, however, it finally closed, since its innovative approach did not fit well with the new National Health Service, and it proved impossible to obtain adequate funding from other sources to keep it going as an independent concern. As noted by Duncan (1985),
“In many ways, both the wellness movement and the family practice movement were foreshadowed by their family-centered approach and their finding that most apparently well individuals actually suffered from some detectable disorder.”
The buildings were later transferred to Southwark Council. The Council operated a leisure centre in the buildings (including the swimming pool), and they also provided educational facilities as part of the Southwark Adult Education Institute.
In the 1990s the remaining buildings were sold by the Council and converted into housing, but remain a Listed Building. This occurred after the responsibility for adult education was significantly reduced and transferred from the local council to Southwark College. Replacement leisure facilities were provided at the Peckham Pulse Healthy Living Centre by Peckham Town Square.
The 21st century
The Pioneer Health Foundation, the charity responsible for the Peckham Experiment continues to exist, the Trustees recognising a need to disseminate the findings and also to keep open the possibility of a further centre or centres opening. Notwithstanding the many changes to society and medicine since the Peckham Experiment, The Pioneer Health Foundation Ltd, as it is now known, believes that the principles identified by Dr George Scott Williamson are basic to health and are of continuing relevance to society. This includes the valuable evidence produced about the relationship between social and home environment and individual motivation and health.
As part of its activities, the Foundation has launched the ‘Mary Langman Prize’; an annual award for an essay on ‘The Relevance of the Peckham Experiment in the 21st Century’ that furthers the lessons learnt at the Pioneer Health Centre about the social, emotional and environmental determinants of health. Mary Langman was personal assistant to Scott Williamson and made a bequest to enable such initiatives.
References in Literature
The Peckham Experiment is referred to in the classic science fiction novel Macroscope by Piers Anthony, wherein an extension of the Peckham Experiment techniques are used to raise a group of children to far-above-average intelligence, resulting in one transcendental genius.
The surviving archives of the Pioneer Health Centre, which include personal papers of Scott Williamson and Innes Pearse, as well as material on subsequent attempts to recreate the experiment elsewhere, are now in the Wellcome Library. There are also numerous books published during and after the Centre's lifespan by individuals who were involved in its work.
- Peckham Experiment, Innes H. Pearse, Lucy H. Crocker 1943.
- Intimate Metropolis: Urban Subjects in the Modern City.Edited by Vittoria Di Palma, Diana Periton, and Marina Lathouri. Taylor & Francis, 2009, ISBN 978-0-415-41506-4 (p.209).
- Rebels for the Soil: The Rise of the Global Organic Food and Farming Movement by Matthew Reed. Earthscan, 2010 ISBN 978-1-84407-597-3 (pp. 55-8).
- Duncan, D. F. (1985). The Peckham experiment: a pioneering exploration of wellness. Health Values, 9(5), 40-43.
- Hall, L. A. (2001). The archives of the Pioneer Health Centre, Peckham, in the Wellcome Library. Social History of Medicine, 14(3), 525-538.
- Lewis, J., and Brookes, B. (1983). A reassessment of the work of the Peckham Health Centre, 1926-1951. Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly: Health and Society, 61(2), 307-350.
- Pearse, I. H., and Crocker, L. H. (1943). The Peckham Experiment. London: Allen and Unwin
- The Peckham Experiment (Pioneer Health Foundation).
- Several papers regarding the Peckham Experiment were published in the journal Social Medicine. These articles include original material and are available in English and Spanish; they include:
- Matthew Anderson (2009): Peckham Experiment (1926-1950): Turning the conventional Medical view inside out full text
- Arati Karnik (2009): The Peckham Experiment: An Introduction, Social Medicine, Vol. 4, No. 3 (abstract, full text)
- The Pioneer Health Foundation (2009): Health of the individual, of the family, of society, Social Medicine, Vol. 4, No. 3 (abstract, full text)
- Kenneth Barlow (1985): The Peckham experiment, Medical History, Vol. 29, No. 3, July 1985, pp. 264-271, doi:10.1017/S002572730004432X, published online 16 August 2012 (first page)
- The Peckham Experiment, with the detailed book review by Colin Ward of Allison Stallibrass' book Being Me and Also Us: Lessons from the Peckham Experiment
- Books about The Peckham Experiment