2 April 2009
Organic, green, healthy, fitness' -you know what these words mean. You probably hear them constantly, as our generation pursues the ideal of leading a healthy lifestyle.
What you may not know is that local doctors Scott Williamson and Innes Pearse probably had influence over this. In fact, in 1926 Dr.Williamson, a Scottish pathologist, and his assistant Pearse embarked on a project known as "The Peckham Experiment", which would greatly benefit the local community, and shape the global field of medicine and healthy living.
The 'experiment' started at 142 Queen's Road and was recently celebrated with a blue plaque. But with contributions from private benefactors, the doctors built The Pioneer Health Centre in May 1935 in St Mary's Road, which closed during the war.
The centre was far from being a regular community centre, because of Dr Williamson's revolutionary approach to health. He believed that prevention was better than cure and applied what is known as the 'holistic approach': he didn't impose cures or schedules, because he believed and further proved that patients' free will was more beneficial than imposing cures or guidelines to let them flourish physically and mentally.
People of all age could use the centre, which stayed open from 2 pm to 10 pm: a big glass building extended over three floors, it offered a recreational space where members could socialise and play sports, from gymnastics and swimming to dancing. The only requisite to join was to be residents within the one mile 'pram-pushing distance' and to pay the centre a minimum contribution.
At the time, Peckham consisted mainly of self-employed artisans or small businesses.
Through a study, Williamson discovered that many had some sort of illness. Taking the family unit as a social basis for his study, he wanted to
give them a different cure.
He encouraged members to engage freely in all the activities they desired: thus, hidden talents and predispositions surfaced, as children would organise their own plays or excel in certain sports.
A team of researchers observed and studied the families' new lifestyle in relation to their health, as Dr Williamson took regular check-ups and discussed the results with them.
As the building was made of glass, everyone was visible to each other and this improved sociability. As Mary Langman, member of staff at the Pioneer Health Centre and Williamson's personal secretary, writes in her personal account of the time - "what was exciting was the emphasis on cultivating what was right- as distinct from proving remedies for what was wrong."
The centre's members grew close, living like a big extended family. One of them said- "the Centre became an extension of our home."
Williamson states significant and profound changes in the way his vision of 'health' had developed. In his treaty 'Science, Synthesis and Sanity', published after his death, he stated that ultimately- "Living healthy is a process, not a state or a condition."
The members of the Peckham Health Centre ate and drank organic foods, such as fresh milk and vegetables that were grown on a farm in Kent and provided by the founders of the Soil Association. From an early age children were taught to choose yoghurt over fats and to eat brown bread. Parents were so pleased with the natural and balanced growth of their children that they asked for a school to be set up.
Pregnant women were given much care and consideration. The newborns, known as "centre babies" turned out to be generally more open and receptive than normal babies, although there is no sufficient scientific evidence to sustain the theory.
Over 1000 families joined and the centre attracted up to 10,000 visitors a year.
As Mary Langman puts it, the final message was clear: "Health is more infectious than disease, given the right conditions for its spread."
But for various reasons, prominently a lack of funds and support from central government, the centre was forced to close in 1950. Despite many protests and petitions by distraught locals for its survival, the Ministry of Health turned down grant applications because the centre was " concerned with health, not the treatment of the disease" and wasn't based on the individual.
The NHS came into being that same year, but Williamson's ideas of the 'health over-haul' were destined to stay.
Since its closure, findings have proposed the World Health Organisation's Healthy Cities Programme and the Health Living Centres in the UK as a perfect model of healthy living.
Presently, the government seems to be considering the institution of nation-wide regular health checks.
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