This is a book about long-term studies of people born into pre-defined parameters and followed through their lives, and touches on how those studies have helped and informed the medical professions as well testing social science theories. That all sounds a little dry, but fortunately this book is anything and although I’m not entirely sure who the target audience is, I found it fascinating.
The book starts by looking at maternity care, for the children born in April 1946 the (at that time one off study) concentrated on where the children were born, whether they survived the first month of life, how long their mothers were confined for and how much they cost. This was in before the creation of the NHS and these children were born at the start of the baby boon but the study had initially been planned by members of the eugenics society to discover why fewer babies were born to the middle classes which caused anxiety about the future of the country. Having dispatched midwives and health visitors to fill in questionnaires about the lives of the 5,000 plus children born in the week the scientists were then able to start writing their reports.
The book talks about the design of follow-up studies for this group of children and what they were trying to discover which leads to the make-up of the questions but also brings in later studies, one in 1956, another in 1970. Another study should have begun in 1982 but Margaret Thatcher wasn’t a big fan of social science and by this time the studies were costing a considerable amount of money so this never took place but a study in Bristol begun in 1991 where DNA was collected from blood and placentas and is still stored to this day. The last study began in 2000 and with those children having reached their teens the next is into the final stages of planning.
I actually knew about the 1991 study through a throw-away comment from my mother who knew one of the participants when he was still a young boy but I didn’t realise how big it was or how far these studies have actually gone towards defining policy. With studies on Grammar versus Comprehensive Schools, obesity, smoking and where it is best to give birth there is very little that hasn’t been plundered to make a case or in some instances to disprove a case.
Helen Pearson is obviously a big supporter of these studies and as the UK is the only country to have so many lives monitored and for so far back, for the ‘better good’, I’m with her although the costs are immense of course as the way we live has changed at such a fast rate continual studies are needed to reflect this. Although a supporter, the author is good at balancing the good done with the misrepresentation of some of the facts and pointing out where the facts themselves could be found wanting – one example of this is a study from the first two birth cohorts which states that children with interested parents do far better than those without at school, and life in general. However as it was teachers who were judging the ‘interest’ levels of parents in their child’s education at a time when these very parents rarely set foot in a school, it may well be that the teachers stated that the parents were interested in the education of their offspring more often if the child was doing well at school.
There are so many interesting facts and a few small insights into the lives of a couple of the earlier candidates, who are still being monitored, that I think there is something to interest many people. I even enjoyed some of the walk through the politics of funding the next phase and next study although the tales of how exhausted those in charge were became a little wearisome at times.
I’m very grateful to Amazon Vine for giving me a copy of this book which gave me a lot to think about on so many different levels. Despite being a book with an academic subject the author has made it incredibly accessible to those with no knowledge of the subject at all. The Life Project will be published on 3 March 2016.