Professor John Pemberton has written a history of the early years of the Society.  We would like to thank the editors of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health for granting Professor Pemberton permission to reproduce the article here for the benefit of our members (J Pemberton Origins and early history of the Society for Social Medicine in the UK and Ireland. J. Epidemiol. Community Health, May 2002; 56: 342 – 346.).

Origins & early history of SSM

A personal account by John Pemberton

Emeritus Professor of Social and Preventive Medicine,
Queen’s University of Belfast

May 2000.

Neglect of social factors in training of doctors in the 1930s

The term Social Medicine was almost unknown to those of us who qualified in the UK before the 1939-45 war. It had, however, been used earlier in a few European medical schools. For example, Andrija Stampar, later to become one of the founders of the World Health Organisation, had been appointed Professor of Social Medicine in Zagreb University as early as 1931.1

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Two medical-political organisations which promoted social medicine in the 1930s

The Committee against Malnutrition, organised by F Le Gros Clark was an influential medical-political body which organised public meetings in the late 1930s and raised public awareness of the harmful effects on health of the widespread malnutrition at the time. The committee was supported by some distinguished doctors including Dr Janet Vaughan, and Profs V H Mottram and F R Marrack.(3)

The Socialist Medical Association (SMA), founded by a few doctors in 1930, was another medical-political group whose members recognised the close relationship between poverty and ill-health and the importance of political decisions for changing these conditions. The SMA promoted, within the Labour Party, the idea of a comprehensive health service, free at the time of use. It was responsible for much of the thinking underlying the National Health Service which was introduced by the Labour Government in 1948 (4).

Several members of the SMA became founder members of the Society for Social Medicine including Richard Doll, Horace Joules and myself.

The Development of Academic Social Medicine

The appointment by Oxford University of John Ryle, professor of Physic at Cambridge and consultant physician at Guy’s hospital, to the first chair of Social Medicine in the UK in 1943 provided a great stimulus to social medicine as an academic discipline.

Ryle put forward the idea that certain population groups were prone to certain diseases because of the conditions under which they lived. He called this social pathology and regarded government statistical reports on mortality as “good bedside reading”.

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Epidemiological research and its extension to non-communicable disease.

Justin Bradford Hill (1897-1991), professor of Medical Statistics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), and a remarkable group of research workers influenced by him, (Appendix 1), played an important part in the extension of epidemiology in the UK to non-communicable disease in the years following the end of the 1939-45 war.

Richard Doll, working with Hill, embarked on his seminal research on cancer of the lung and smoking.

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Contacts in the USA and the creation of professional associations

In the 1950s some of us went to the USA for further experience.

At the New York Hospital I met a young physician, Harold Willard, who had become interested in what happened to his patients after they left hospital. We had both done some modest research and teaching on the social aspects of clinical medicine but found that we were ignorant about what was going on in academic social medicine and epidemiology elsewhere, even in our own countries.

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The founding of the Society for Social Medicine

There was an animated discussion on Item 4 at the end of which the chairman, Prof James Mackintosh, (Prof of Public Health at the LSHTM), expressed the conclusion of the meeting in the following words:

“It was agreed in principle that a British Society of Preventive and Social Medicine should be formed with the following essential features:

It should be a wholly independent society. Its main object should be the advancement of academic social medicine, primarily in the research field. The society should normally hold its meetings at the various academic and research institutes with which its members are professionally associated. The place of meeting should be selected for its scientific interest rather than for accessibility. The society should approach the governing body of the Journal of Preventive and Social Medicine with a view to forming a close association. The membership of the Society should be limited by certain criteria which will be gradually established as it develops. In the initial stages however, membership would be offered to all who hold academic and research positions in this field. It was agreed that the operative basis of the Society should be in the nature of an annual conference lasting perhaps two or three days and, according to need, one other meeting during the year.”

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Link with the British Journal of Preventive and Social Medicine

Formal links between the Society and the British Journal of Preventive and Social Medicine, (later to become The Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health), were established in 1959 and two representatives of the Society were added to the editorial board. Titles of papers to be read at the annual scientific meetings were published in the journal and in 1962 fuller accounts of the Society’s proceedings and abstracts of papers, given at the scientific meetings, were included.

The later history of the Society

Ian Leck in writing about the Society in the years 1956-96 commented on the great expansion in the number of papers given at the annual scientific meetings over this period from 16 to 77.He also noted that just over half were concerned with health services research in 1996 whereas at the early meetings the great majority of the papers dealt with the epidemiology of specific disorders. ( 6 )

It is to be hoped that someone, better qualified than I am, will write a fuller history of the later years of the Society.


1A survivor of several regimes, Stampar started a lecture to the Sheffield medical school with the words: “I expect that I am the only professor of social medicine who has been in prison four times.”

2In the year I qualified, 1936, there were 28,268 deaths from tuberculosis in England and Wales.

3Aphorisms of F.A.E.Crew. “The House of Commons is the pharmacy of Social Medicine” and “Man is the greatest pathogen known to man”.


  1. Orr JE. Food, Health and Income. London: Macmillan 1936.
  2. Pemberton J. Malnutrition in England. University College Hospital Magazine 1934;19(4):153-159.
  3. Committee against Malnutrition, Medical News. Lancet 1938;l:527.
  4. Stewart J. The Battle for Health. A political history of the Socialist Medical Association, 1930-51. Ashgate Publishing Limited, 1999.
  5. Royal College of Physicians of London.Social and Preventive Medicine Committee Interim Report Oct.1943.
  6. Leck I. The Society for Social Medicine; I956-1996. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 1996:50:177.

Appendix 1

Some of those who were working at the LSHTM after the end of the 1939-45 war and worked with, or were influenced by, Bradford Hill:

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Appendix 2

Those who attended the meeting in London in June 1956 at which the Society for Social Medicine was founded.  Members of the International Corresponding Club:

Dr Ian McCallum
Dr C.R. Lowe
Dr James Hislop
Dr A.L. Cochrane
Dr Maurice Backett
Dr Alice Stewart
Dr Richard Scott
Dr Robert Sutherland
Dr Robert Logan
Dr R.C. Wofinden
Prof Alex Mair
Dr John Pemberton
Prof A. Querido
Dr Richard Doll
Prof Robert Cruickshank
Dr John Lee
Dr R.N. Hitchens
Prof John Brotherston
Prof W.J.E. Jessop
Prof Gurney Clark
Durham University
Pneumoconiosis Research Unit
Queen’s University Belfast
St Mary’s Hospital, London
Social Medicine Research Unit, London Hospital
Welsh National School of Medicine
University of Edinburgh
Trinity College, Dublin
Columbia University, New York
Prof James Mackintosh
Dr J.N. Morris
Prof W Hobson
Prof Tom McKeown
Prof F. Grundy
Dr Alex Robertson
Prof A. Stevenson
Prof Tom Murphy
Prof E.K.Cruickshank
Social Medicine Research Unit, London Hospital
Sheffield University
Birmingham University
Welsh National School of Medicine
Queens University Belfast
University College, Dublin
University College of the West Indies