Get the placentas

Gavin Francis

  • BuyThe Life Project: The Extraordinary Story of Our Ordinary Lives by Helen Pearson
    Allen Lane, 399 pp, £20.00, February 2016, ISBN 978 1 84614 826 2

In November 1981 at a function in London, Neville Butler, a professor of paediatric medicine at Bristol University, contrived to drop a cup of coffee at Margaret Thatcher’s feet. He stooped down to mop it up, then sprang up and asked her for money. ‘I’m Professor Butler,’ he’s reported to have said. ‘We’re doing a national study looking at thousands of children. We need more funding!’ She ordered a member of her entourage to ‘talk to this gentleman’, then pushed on to give her speech. Helen Pearson makes no judgment as to whether splashing Margaret Thatcher with coffee helped Butler to get his funding. She does tell us that he spent his evenings writing begging letters to the worthies listed in Who’s Who, and that he managed to get money from the likes of Robert Maxwell, Cliff Richard and Twiggy.

Since 1958 Butler had been the co-ordinator of a perennially impoverished study which began by examining the medical, social and economic circumstances of 17,000 babies born in the same week in March 1958, then over subsequent decades monitored their health alongside their educational and economic outcomes. This was the second such study; the first, led by James Douglas, followed nearly 14,000 individuals born in the first week of March 1946. By 1981 Butler was running the project with Mia Kellmer Pringle, an educational psychologist born in Vienna who had arrived in Britain as a refugee in the 1930s (Pearson records her telling a colleague that she’d had three hurdles to overcome in Britain: ‘she was a foreigner, she was a woman and she was clever’). Butler and Kellmer Pringle also ran a third study, which followed a cohort of 17,000 born in 1970. Cohort studies are an unusually powerful means of teasing out causes and effects in sociology and medicine. To take just one example, a comparison of the data across the three cohorts shows that a rise in obesity during the 1980s affected all three at the same time, probably due to changes in diet, affluence and an increase in car travel.

Cohort studies are notoriously expensive to run, and vulnerable to fluctuations in the political climate. The early 1980s, like today, were a bad time to ask the government for money. Lord Hailsham had described the social sciences as ‘a happy hunting ground for the bogus and the meretricious’. It was, as Pearson says, a belief widely held in Tory circles: the social sciences, they felt, lacked rigour as a discipline, producing results ‘everybody knew’. In 1982 the Social Science Research Council, the SSRC, had its name changed to ESRC, to emphasise economics over ‘social’ science. Early in Thatcher’s first term, Keith Joseph, then her secretary of state for industry, told researchers: ‘I’ll start funding your research when you start telling me things I want to hear.’ In 1979 Kellmer Pringle had been promised funding for a fourth cohort study, scheduled to begin in 1982, under the care of the mathematician turned social scientist Jean Golding. But an earlier report on the cohort studies had concluded that ‘there is nothing to contradict and everything to support the theory that social class differences are widening rather than diminishing’ – not the kind of thing Keith Joseph wanted to hear. The 1982 study was cancelled, and the chain of data comparing 12-yearly generations was broken.

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