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Williamson, George Scottfree

(1883–1953)
  • David Goodway

George Scott Williamson (1883–1953)

by unknown photographer, c. 1946 [Williamson with Innes Pearse and Mary Langman (their personal secretary)]

© Peckham Health Centre/Wellcome Library, London

Williamson, George Scott (1883–1953), medical practitioner and biologist, was born on 19 June 1883 in Ladybank, Fife, the eldest of ten children of David Williamson, a merchant seaman and later ship's captain, and his wife, Jane Theresa, née Short. He grew up in Edinburgh and South Shields, co. Durham, and was educated at Barnard Castle, a recently founded public school. At seventeen he was employed by the GPO as a telegraphist, but later studied at the Edinburgh School of Medicine, before graduating LRCP and LRCS in 1907. On 2 November of the following year, at St Mark's Church, Regent's Park, London, he married Nellie Madden (1878–1950), daughter of Robert Madden, master mariner; a son, David Norman, was born in 1910.

Williamson began his medical career as a pathologist at the Nordrach on Dee sanatorium, Aberdeenshire. In 1908 he moved to the research laboratory of the West Riding Asylums Board, Wakefield, and then to the University of Bristol's department of pathology two years later. In 1911 he organized opposition to the health insurance section of the Liberal government's National Insurance Bill, an important early sign of his resistance to state-defined and instituted forms of care. During the First World War Williamson served in France with the Royal Army Medical Corps, becoming a lieutenant-colonel in charge of field ambulances; mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Military Cross, he also spent nine months in Germany as a prisoner of war prior to his return to the University of Bristol.

Between 1920 and 1926 he worked as a pathologist at the Royal Free Hospital, London, and then at the Ear, Nose, and Throat Hospital (1926–35), and from 1935 at St Bartholomew's. In London Williamson combined his posts with research on the anatomy and function of the thyroid and, from the mid-1920s, with an innovative exercise in social medicine from which developed the Pioneer Health Centre, Peckham, for which he is now known. The 'Peckham experiment' took place in what was then the borough of Camberwell, south-east London, first as pilot scheme, 1926–9, and later in purpose-built premises, 1935–9 and 1946–51. Central to Williamson's work was a focus on the promotion of health, rather than the curing of illness, and the encouragement of autonomy and self-activity among the centre's working-class members.

A year after taking up his post at the Royal Free, Williamson was joined by Innes Hope Pearse (1889–1978), medical practitioner and biologist, who was then also undertaking thyroid research. Innes Pearse was born in March 1889 in Purley, Surrey, the eldest child of George Edgar Hope Pearse (1859–1921), a 'merchant shipper to South America' (1901 census), and his wife, Catherine Beardsley Pearse, née Morley (1853–1929), of Nottingham. Her childhood was spent at Foxley Lodge, Godstone Road, Purley. After Woodford House School, east Croydon, she studied at the London School of Medicine for Women where she qualified in 1915. Pearse worked briefly at the Bristol Royal Hospital for Women and Children, but returned to London in 1918, holding posts at the Great Northern Hospital, the London Hospital (where she was one of the first female medical registrars), and at St Thomas's. From 1921 she worked with Williamson on his thyroid research at the Royal Free and concurrently as the medical officer for the Alice Model infant welfare centre, Stepney.

It was in this latter capacity that Pearse was contacted in 1924 by a committee of philanthropic couples concerned by the lack of contraceptive advice for working-class women. She was visited at the Royal Free and through these meetings she, and Williamson, were drawn to the subject of public health—and especially the opportunities for promoting health and well-being among a responsible and self-reliant population. In April 1926 the pair acquired a small house on Queen's Road, Peckham, which they equipped with a kitchen, playroom, clubroom, bathroom, and consulting and changing rooms. They distributed information to all households within easy walking distance—that is, within reach of a mother pushing a pram—and invited families to join a new club, the Pioneer Health Centre. Though initially prompted by concerns over birth control and infant care, the centre was also informed by Williamson's and Pearse's broader criticism of the medical profession as overly focused on illness rather than on understanding, evaluating, and cultivating health. The purpose of the Pioneer centre, by contrast, was the promotion of health: to detect the onset of disease and to advise on how to obtain necessary treatment. The only conditions of membership were a weekly family subscription of 6d. and a periodic medical examination (later known as the 'health overhaul') for each member of the family. The building was open daily except on Sundays, from 2 to 10 p.m., and the doctors worked the same hours. Members were able to make appointments for their medical examination to suit their, not the doctors', convenience. Later a large hut was constructed in the garden for use as a playroom by the older children and for dances and whist drives. Between 1926 and 1929, 115 families (or about 400 individuals) became members of the centre.

Peckham had been chosen as a relatively prosperous area with high employment and few labourers, inhabited overwhelmingly by artisans, as well as some clerical workers, shopkeepers, and small employers. Here Williamson and Pearse had expected to find a reasonably healthy population, though this presumption was overturned by closer investigation. As they reported in their 1931 manifesto, The Case for Action: a Survey of Everyday Life under Modern Industrial Conditions, with Special Reference to the Question of Health, they had been 'greatly astonished' to discover that, of the parents they examined aged over twenty-five, 'for all without exception there was something to be done and that in many there was frank disease' (Williamson and Pearse, Case, 12). In response to this need the original premises were closed in 1929 and the Pioneer Health Centre was registered with the Charity Commissioners, while funds were sought for a new, self-supporting centre with an intended membership of 2000 families. The generosity of the future Labour arts minister, Jack Donaldson, who gave £10,000 to the centre's account, prompted others to match his gift collectively.

On 27 March 1935 the Pioneer centre reopened on St Mary's Road, Peckham, in an imposing modernist building designed by Sir Owen Williams who worked closely to Williamson's principles of healthy living and disease prevention. The new centre, built around what was then the second largest swimming pool in London, provided a day nursery, substantial play area, a two-storey-high gymnasium, theatre, cafeteria, and—spanning the front of the building—a long gallery ideal for dancing. The second floor contained a committee room, dark room, band room, and areas for darts, table tennis, billiards, and listening to the radio; it was here also that the centre's consulting rooms and laboratory were located. In response to the inadequacy of foodstuffs in Peckham, milk, eggs, fruit, and vegetables were brought in for sale from 1938, and post-war only wholemeal bread was available in the centre's cafeteria. The produce was grown on an organic farm at Bromley, Kent, which Pearse had leased since 1935 and where she and Williamson lived as a couple. Theirs was a holistic perspective that a functional relationship between all entities in an environment was needed to sustain the health of the whole. It proved an important influence on the work of the campaigner for organic farming, Lady Eve Balfour, of whose Soil Association (1946) Williamson and Pearse were also founding members.

In 1938 the Peckham Biologists (as Williamson and Pearse styled themselves) published Biologists in Search of Material, an interim report on their work. They believed that their experiment was dependent on the fulfilment of five conditions: the maintenance of health overhauls and subsequent consultations; a family and local membership (to the exclusion of individual members); financial contributions by members; its new premises designed to further the experiment; and the guarantee of autonomy for members—adults and children alike—to shape their own lives and that of the centre. These conditions also reveal Williamson's firm belief that members would only value the centre if they paid a subscription, however low, and that charity restricted the capacity for responsible actions. Both were similarly insistent that, as biologists researching human activity, they were required to create an environment of complete autonomy, 'any imposed action or activity' being 'a study of authority, discipline or instruction … not the study of free agents plus their self-created environment'. In 1938 they also wrote warmly, and perhaps unwisely, of 'a sort of anarchy' and of their belief that only 'a very strict “anarchy” … will permit the emergence of order through spontaneous action' (Williamson and Pearse, Biologists, 40–41).

On several occasions in the 1940s Williamson addressed the London Anarchist Group, though he later objected vehemently to coverage by the anarchist newspaper, Freedom, of the eventual closure of the centre which pointed to its anarchist nature: 'I am not an anarchist, nor do I believe in anarchy—not even the Kropotkin type' (Freedom, 25 Aug 1951). In truth, Williamson appears—like his contemporary, the progressive educationalist A. S. Neill—to have been an anarchist in both theory and practice, while publicly denying this. According to Frances Donaldson, the wife of the centre's principal benefactor, Williamson's 'lack of paternalism … was complete. He was not interested in how people should behave, or in how they might be made to behave, but only in how they did behave in any given circumstance' (Donaldson, 159–60). Thus, while the centre's 'overhauls' provided people with information on their health, medical staff did not provide treatments or direct members on what to do, preferring them instead to make informed, autonomous choices. As Williamson told the London Anarchist Group: 'I was the only person with authority … and I used it to stop anyone exerting any authority!' (Freedom, 23 March 1946).

With its large expanse of glass the Peckham centre was deemed particularly vulnerable to enemy bombing and it was closed following the outbreak of war in 1939. In due course Williams's building was converted into a munitions factory. However, the centre's members campaigned for its reopening which, assisted by a three-year grant from the Sir Halley Stewart Trust, took place on 23 March 1946. Five hundred of the 875 families who had been members in 1939 rejoined immediately, though in this period the centre struggled financially prior to its final closure in July 1951. Required from 1948 to comply with the principles of the National Health Service, Williamson and Pearse also found themselves out of step with a new orthodoxy more concerned with the treatment of disease than the cultivation of health; with care of the individual, rather than the integrated family; and a national service distinct from Peckham's commitment to locality and to members' financial contributions. Considered a 'victory for state pathology', the NHS was at odds with Williamson's stance as an anti-statist libertarian (quoted in Lewis and Brookes, 328).

For thirty years a professional partnership, George Scott Williamson and Innes Pearse were married on 20 February 1950, at Bromley register office, following the death of Williamson's first wife, Nellie, in January of that year. The couple lived at the Mill House, Rotherfield, Sussex, until Williamson's death on 4 June 1953 at the Kent and Sussex Hospital, Tunbridge Wells, following an aneurysm. There were no children from the relationship.

Initial assessments of Williamson's contribution to medicine and biological science were mixed. The BMJ's obituarist summarized the high regard for his work on the anatomy of the thyroid and described Peckham as an experiment 'conducted in an enlightened and inspiring fashion'. However, it was also noted that 'very little that is concrete seems to have emerged from the research' (BMJ, 20 June 1953) while for The Times it was as a 'leader, social worker, and teacher … rather than as a biologist or medical research worker' that Williamson 'excelled' (6 June 1953). Despite these qualifications, from an early twenty-first century perspective the Pioneer centre's promotion of holistic, preventive medicine, well-being, and personal responsibility, may be seen as anticipating some more recent approaches to public health. In the years following Williamson's death, Innes Pearse brought to publication his theoretical treatise, Science, Synthesis, and Sanity: an Enquiry into the Nature of Living (1965)—a dauntingly conceptual work, replete with neologisms that did nothing to satisfy their critics or even to aid their admirers. She died at their home in Rotherfield on 25 December 1978, of a pulmonary embolism, and was cremated at the Kent and Sussex crematorium, Tunbridge Wells, on 4 January 1979. Her own reflective work, The Quality of Life: the Peckham Approach to Human Ethology (1979), appeared posthumously.

Sources

  • D. Goodway, ‘Anarchism and the welfare state: the Peckham Health Centre’, May 2007, www.historyandpolicy.org/papers/policy-paper-55.html, 11 Oct 2011
  • J. Lewis and B. Brookes, ‘A reassessment of the work of the Peckham Health Centre, 1926–1951’, Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly: Health and Society, 61 (1983), 307–50
  • L. A. Hall, ‘The archives of the Pioneer Health Centre, Peckham, in the Wellcome Library’, Social History of Medicine, 14 (2001), 525–38
  • A. Stallibrass, Being me and also us: lessons from the Peckham experiment (1989)
  • G. S. Williamson and I. H. Pearse, The passing of Peckham, 1951 (1951)
  • F. Donaldson, Child of the twenties (1959)
  • L. Woodward, introd., in E. B. Balfour, The living soil, 1st edn, 1943 (2006)
  • ‘Health club for the family’, The Times (28 March 1935)
  • ‘End of the Peckham Health Centre’, The Times (31 July 1951)
  • b. cert. [George Scott Williamson]
  • m. certs.
  • d. cert. [George Scott Williamson]
  • d. cert. [Innes Hope Scott Williamson]

Archives

  • Wellcome L., Pioneer Health Centre Peckham archive, papers of Williamson and Pearse

Film

  • BFINA, The Centre, Central Office of Information, 1947

Likenesses

  • photographs, 1946, Wellcome L.; repro. in Hall, ‘Pioneer Health Centre’ [see illus.]
  • photograph, repro. in Donaldson, Child, facing p. 154
  • photograph, repro. in www.thephf.org
  • photographs, repro. in Stallibrass, Being me, 22, 34

Wealth at Death

£43,099—Innes Hope Pearse: probate, 6 March 1979, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

British Medical Journal