Good ideas that didn't pan out, part 3: health centre


A five-part series on worthy innovations from the past that didn't quite make it

21st September 2014
By Stian Westlake

Every so often you happen across an old project or scheme that had some success but then later disappeared. A few such ideas might still even have something helpful to offer us now.

Part 3: The Peckham Experiment

“I would rather be kept alive in the efficient if cold altruism of a large hospital than expire in a gush of warm sympathy in a small one,” said Aneurin Bevan, when defending the closures of cottage hospitals in the early days of the NHS.

But it wasn’t only gushing sympathy that was squeezed out when the NHS regularized the hotchpot of the UK’s health system. In south-east London, a fascinating experiment came to an end.

The Pioneer Health Centre was a cross between a fitness club, a public health project, and a medical experiment. From 1935, it was based in a striking Modernist building on St Mary’s Road in Peckham – an oasis of glass in a sea of brick in Walter Gropius’s words. The building still stands today, although it has been converted into flats.

Members paid a fee of a shilling a year, in return for which they could use the centre’s facilities, including a swimming pool, games and workshops, got an annual medical check-up and were observed by researchers.

The centre was unusual both in its focus on fitness, diet and wellbeing as the basis of health, and in the emphasis it put on the patients rather than doctors being in control of the system.

None of this fit with the vision of the NHS as set out in 1948, nor did the fact that the Peckham Experimentees paid to be part of the Centre. The combination of official uninterest and costly repairs from the war forced it to close in 1950. But in an age where we measure our wellbeing with apps and gadgets, and where most clinicians are keen to give patients more autonomy, could we be learning more from the Peckham Experiment?

More in this series

Part 1: a new economy in the Tyrol

Part 2: Project Cybersyn

Part 4: Sword into ploughshares at Lucas

Part 5: the Chicago Plan


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