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‘Working in a comfort formerly unknown’: medical holism and the radical ambitions behind interwar Bermondsey’s foot clinic


In 1930, the Bermondsey Public Health Department made the rather unusual decision to establish the first municipal foot clinic in Britain. This pioneering and popular clinic was founded at a time when the aims of public health were being renegotiated. Historical discussion of the reconceptualisation of public health in the interwar period typically depicts a paradigm shift in which public health was no longer focused solely on sanitising the physical environment, but was characterised by an additional, separate aim: the development of hygienic behaviour within patients. While this narrative has proved helpful in explaining the emergence of health education between the wars, Bermondsey’s foot clinic challenges it somewhat. In essence, the foot clinic was an inventive and multifaceted attempt to treat Bermondsey’s rampant poverty. Chiefly, the clinic sought to improve the occupational fitness of the population in an area where most jobs required workers to be stood up all day. In addition, the foot clinic was expected to provoke physiological and spiritual renewal by freeing patients to move more naturally, according to specific contemporary modernist theories of movement. Finally, the architecture of the building which housed the foot clinic was designed to encourage its patients to adopt more hygienic ways of living in their own homes. Thus, the clinic’s aims are difficult to compartmentalise into either sanitisation of the lived environment or health education, since it sought to achieve both goals simultaneously. Fundamentally, this integrated approach to public health was rooted in a concept of health that upheld the interconnectedness of individual, communal and environmental well-being.

  • history
  • public health
  • politics
  • theology
  • architecture

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