Having a ‘typewritten conversation’

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By | From the Collections

The records of the Pioneer Health Centre Peckham, along with the personal papers of its originators, George Scott Williamson and Innes Pearse, came into the Wellcome Library over a period of years from a variety of different sources, having ended up dispersed in the hands of assorted individuals who had been involved in the Peckham Experiment before its demise. The Library has just been given a letter which adds significantly to the documentation of the relationship between Sir Robert McCarrison and Williamson and Pearse –  something of a mutual admiration society.

Nutrition and national health : three lectures delivered before the Royal society of Arts on February10th, 17th and 24th, 1936 by Sir Robert McCarrison. WI no. L0067681

Nutrition and national health : three lectures delivered in 1936 by Sir Robert McCarrison. WI no. L0067681

McCarrison is noted for his work on nutrition, with particular reference to deficiency diseases and the role of diet in metabolism, conducted during the early twentieth century while stationed in India. A small collection of his papers, consisting mainly of posters of observations and experiments in nutrition, is held by the Wellcome Library.

A twelve-page typewritten letter, dated 19 Jun 1930 from the Pasteur Institute, Coonoor, South India, indicates that there was already a thriving correspondence between these parties, most of which does not survive although a few items can already be found in SA/PHC/F.16/4, to which this letter has been added. McCarrison alludes to two ‘very welcome’ recent letters received by him from ‘My dear W and P’, and his letter clearly forms part of ongoing ‘typewritten conversation’, as he describes it.

He had come to know of Williamson and Pearse through their work in thyroid research, rather than their pilot project in community health in Peckham, but all of them were concerned about the relationship of a positively healthy state in the individual as contributing to improved resistance to  infectious diseases and lack of degenerative conditions as well as elucidating the mysteries of the thyroid gland. McCarrison gives an extended account of his observations of happy, well-fed rats living ‘under the most perfect conditions of hygiene’, with ‘periodic sun-baths’ and cages allowing of adequate exercise, contrasting them with a population otherwise similar but ill-fed.

He mentions several other researchers with approval: Sir Arbuthnot Lane ‘despite his adventures in journalism’; Dr Lucy Wills, contemporaneously working in India on anaemias of pregnancy; and Kathleen Chevassut, whose work on disseminated sclerosis he found intriguing.

This letter substantially adds to our knowledge of the association between these individuals interested in the creation of positive health and the wider research milieu of which they were part.

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall, FRHistS, PhD, DipAA, has been an archivist at the Wellcome since 1979. She has published extensively on the history of sexuality and gender in Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries, given many talks and conference presentations, and featured on radio and television. Further details can be found at her website.

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