Public health and Quakerism

Public health and Quakerism: Health and wellbeing: the 21st century agenda

 By Andrew Williams 

Public health has been defined as: ‘the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting physical health and efficiency through organised community efforts … and the development of social machinery which will ensure to every individual in the community a standard of living adequate for the maintenance of health.’ (Winslow, CE (1920) ‘The untilled fields of public health’ Science, 51: 23-33.) 

From this definition it is clear that the discipline of public health aligns with many Quaker principles and the work undertaken by Quaker organisations across the globe.  Therefore, it is no surprise that Quakers have been involved with public health throughout our history for example:

  • John Fothergill (1712-1780) who stressed the importance of diet, fresh air and regular exercise in health,
  • George Newman (1870-1948) who as medical officer of health for Finsbury recognised the impact of overcrowding upon health,
  • Seebohm Rowntree (1871-1954) who documented living conditions in York informing our understanding of poverty,
  • Alfred (1873-1945) & Ada (1867-1942) Salter who recognised that medical intervention would not be effective while housing conditions were so poor.  So they successfully campaigned for increased house building and trees and flowers in every open space.

On the 08 and 09/09/2011 the journal Public Health and the Royal Society for Public Health gathered approximately 350 people from 22 countries representing every continent for the Public Health International conference on ‘Health and wellbeing: the 21st century agenda’.  I attended the conference which took place at Friends House, London.  This coincidence of my work and faith felt like an excellent opportunity to highlight the links between Quakerism and public health in the 21st century.

The speakers at the conference highlighted many topics of interest to Quakers.  Michael Marmot (chair of the Marmot Review ‘Fair society, healthy lives’) specifically highlighted the Quaker values of social justice and equality and their importance in public health.  For example he pointed out that the 2011 riots started in Tottenham the London borough with the lowest male life expectancy.  Over 91% of convicted rioters were Not in Education Employment or Training (NEET) compared with a national average of only 10% demonstrating the link between inequality, health and society.

Gregor Henderson (Independent consultant in mental health and wellbeing) introduced the website AfterNow ( which describes the concept of ‘dis-eases’ such as stress which are becoming the cause of more illness than pathogens in the 21st century.  The 5 ways to wellbeing have been introduced as a suggested aid to ‘dis-eases’ (  The 5 ways to wellbeing are: connect, be active, take notice, keep learning and give, encouraging people to become socially, cognitively and physically active within their community.  Henderson’s plenary led to discussion about the role of spirituality in health and wellbeing.

Professor Tim Lang (Professor of Food Policy, City University London) and Philip Insall (Health Director of Sustans) discussed how food policy and active transportation are important interventions in the prevention and treatment of obesity.  But both speakers also highlighted that the interventions were beneficial to the environment as well as health.  The harmonization of public health and sustainability was further highlighted through plenaries by Jonathon Poritt (environmentalist & writer) and Professor Sir Andy Haines (Professor of Public Health & Primary Care, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine).  They gave examples of interventions for reducing carbon footprints which also improve health.  Firstly, improved building insulation which: reduces heat loss from buildings; reducing fuel consumption and leading to fewer winter deaths.  Secondly, replacing traditional ovens in poorer homes in India with more efficient ovens, would lead to a reduction in the number of cases of respiratory illness from inhaled particulate pollution.

With Britain Yearly Meeting making a commitment to sustainability, I feel that Quakers and Public Health professional have a great deal to learn from each other.  As the National Health Service undergoes changes the future of public health within the country may seem uncertain.  However, the goals defined by Winslow will continue to be pursued by public health professionals and non-professionals inside and outside the health services.  Hence, can we work with public health using the Quaker testimonies to simplicity, peace, integrity, community and equality to improve societal mental and physical health and sustainability in the 21st century?

Leave a Reply