What’s on : Lectures

The Life Project: The extraordinary story of our ordinary lives

7 Jul 2017
Start time
7:30 PM
Tempest Anderson Hall
Helen Pearson

Event Information

by Helen Pearson, science writer and editor, “Nature”

A joint lecture with the British Society for the History of Science

Little known to many of us, “cohort studies” compare a large number of people, all born at the same time, by following them throughout their lives.  The first cohort study was started just after the Second World War to track from birth more than 5000 people, now over 70 years old, and four other projects have been started between 1958 and 2000.  Helen Pearson will look at how these remarkable studies have been conducted, what they have found and how they have contributed to all our lives.

Member’s report

Read an extract from Helen Pearson’s book “The Life Project”:
The Life Project. Extract

After hearing her lecture, and reading the epic story in Helen Pearson’s book, I was struck particularly by three aspects:

The post-war birth-cohort studies owe everything to the vision and energy of a few social and medical scientists. They had the willing participation of expectant mothers, and of the midwives involved, happy to help after the deprivations of war and concerns over high infant mortality. Less easy was raising finance, designing questionnaires, data collection, and overcoming political scepticism.

The mass of information gathered was kept on punch cards and sorted by hand, for the massive task of interpretation. These punched cards survived and the treasure trove of historical data later transferred to paper tape. With no means of backing it up, masses of irreplaceable records were at huge risk. On one occasion, the cards had to be moved in batches by bicycle across London. Analysing it before computerisation was a remarkable achievement.

Much to the concern and disappointment of scientists a 21st-century cohort planned to start around now has been cancelled, the killer blow being the unexpected resistance of privacy-conscious pregnant women to signing up for the survey. On a brighter note, a ‘cohort laboratory’ has been established in London, a building to house all existing cohorts, enabling further research and including arrangements for future projects.

Ken Hutson