Helen Pearson on a Unique Study of Thousands of British Lives

27 August 2016


“Extraordinary things happen when we do something as simple as track people through their lives.” So said Helen Pearson as she presented her book The Life Project: the Extraordinary Story of our Ordinary Lives at Edinburgh International Book Festival. Pearson has charted the history of a British project, commenced in 1946, which constitutes the longest-running cohort study in human history – and has produced “the most studied people on the planet.” The subjects of the 1946 study, and of subsequent versions commenced in 1958, 1970 and 1991, have contributed such a wealth of data to influence policy on birth, healthcare, education, disease and ageing that Pearson contends they have “touched the lives of everyone in Britain today.”

The origin of the 1946 study was an effort to explore the effects of inequalities at birth, spurred by a fear that post-war birth rates were dropping and threatening Britain’s economic wellbeing. “There was a real fear,” said Pearson, “that the British were heading for extinction.” The study examined exactly what it took to have a child, by interviewing thousands of mothers who had given birth in same week about what they had spent and sacrificed. One question, Pearson noted, was “Who looked after your husband while you were in bed with this baby?” But dated social assumptions aside, the work had lasting impact. “The findings fed into the foundations of the NHS,” Pearson said. “This survey helped to create the lasting belief that pregnant women deserve support from the state.”

Then cohort of 1946 births continued to be studied, by, as Pearson puts it, “a cast of eccentric Englishmen and women over the years”. It helped to determine that the eleven plus examination, intended to level educational opportunity, wasn’t working as intended. “The earliest circumstances of our lives,” said Pearson, “have this profound influence on how the rest of our lives play out.” Now, at 70, that cohort is providing invaluable data on how Britons age – while later sets of subjects have provided answers to more recent concerns, such as the impact of smoking in pregnancy and parental mental health, and the epidemic of childhood obesity.

Surprisingly, given their clear value, the cohort studies have struggled to survive. An attempt to commence one in 2015 was shut down, because, Pearson says, of a less potent public sense of duty to obey government edicts, as well as concerns about privacy and time. “Women are busy. They’re working - and they’re rightly concerned about what that data will be used for.” Is there hope for another one? “At present the scientists need to lick their wounds a bit. Maybe five years down the line there will be another effort to get one going.”

Pearson herself gave birth during the writing of the book. “Some of the care I was experiencing could be traced back to the 1946 study,” she said. “I became a little more grateful for the NHS…” And to the subjects of the study - several of whom revealed themselves to be in the audience for the Edinburgh event.


More articles