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Book review: The Life Project by Helen Pearson

The Life Project combines science, social history and public health in an engaging and informative story. The book looks at the first cohort study of almost 14,000 children born in one week in 1946; a time when the country was recovering from the effects of war and the establishment of the NHS was in progress. Such a study had never been undertaken before, and it gave a fascinating insight into the social circumstances and health of the population. The results highlighted social inequalities and the impact of these on health; for example, detailing access to maternity care and analgesia in childbirth across the social classes.

An interesting and thought provoking read

Whilst the book draws on cohort and longitudinal studies of generations of children, it is written in an informal style, focusing on many case studies and individual stories. This helps to bring the scientific studies to life, and highlights the stark differences in family circumstances across the social divide. It does not only cover medical care, but also looks at education, developing modern healthcare and social mobility.

The book details the struggle the researchers faced, especially in the early days before the advent of computers, when all data was collected by hand and transferred onto punched cards. The determination of the researchers comes across in the book, and this lead to them developing the studies beyond the initial remit to allow the cohort to be followed up for decades. The studies influence on healthcare and education across the decades are illustrated. Examples include our understanding of the effects of smoking in pregnancy and the impact of poverty on health.

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The book covers some challenging concepts, such as the thought that some children are ‘born to fail’. Issues of class and financial circumstance are discussed in relation to educational achievement and social mobility. Whilst the studies were originally intended to look at maternity care and the newborn child, their remit grew providing a large data source.

This is an interesting and thought provoking read, covering a wide range of social, healthcare and educational topics. The author includes many individual stories, which bring to life the research and demonstrate its ongoing importance today.


Dr Holly Simms is a retired GP in Hertfordshire