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The Peckham Experiment into Health Ecology: An Old Study with Modern Implications

By Stuart Hill - posted Thursday, 30 September 2004

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 WW II. Despite differences between societies then and now, I consider that much may be learned from this groundbreaking 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 per cent of the population had no detectable disorders, secondly that 80 per cent 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 statistics. They regarded themselves as “biologists” rather than medical researchers in their pursuit of the causes of health.

With money from the Nuffield Foundation 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 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.


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 well being would be enormous.

The experiment involved a community health centre and included:

  • 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);
  • freedom to choose activities (but recorded);
  • minimal supervision;
  • organic cafeteria (linked to a farm);
  • annual “health” audit as a family (where you “stand”); and
  • access to essential information (talks, referrals, networking, interest-groups, gossip etc.).

Initially the experiment involved 6 to 18 months of relative chaos as participants switched from living in response (from the outside-in) to becoming more proactive (from the inside-out).

Over the next 12 years, which included four years before and after WW II (the centre was closed for the duration of war) the following findings were made:

  • there were no marriage breakdowns;
  • there was no bullying and only one accident;
  • participants had a low interest and involvement in competitive games;
  • there was a high-level of collaboration and taking part in joint projects;
  • high skill acquisition;
  • improved health and wellbeing; and
  • increased creativity.

The key to this success was:

  • a supportive environment;
  • freedom to be spontaneous;
  • non-judgemental feedback;
  • supportive staff as opposed to intrusive or manipulative staff; and
  • support during narrow windows of change (puberty, forming primary relationships, pregnancy, birth etc.).

All of the experiment’s numerous important discoveries coalesced around the central concept that health is a process - not just 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. 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.

These findings have relevance to every area - personal, social and environmental - where health and well being are desired goals. Sadly most health practitioners remain unaware of the Peckham findings and are still constrained by the limited possibilities of the traditional “medical model”. Thus, the opportunity to make the conditions for health universally available remains as a challenge to those willing to dare to apply and further develop the findings of Williamson and Pearse and their colleagues in Peckham. The Pioneer Health Centre Ltd. (Hon.Sec. Lisa Curtice – still exists and continues to be committed to furthering this goal.

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About the Author

Professor Stuart B. Hill is Foundation Chair of Social Ecology at the University of Western Sydney.

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