Records of the MRC National Survey of Health and Development

Scope and Content

This is a collection of the administrative records of the NSHD, rather than the research data gathered through the study. The records in this collection include: blank questionnaires; correspondence; strategic reviews; grant applications; reports to funders; meeting papers; papers resulting from research projects and data analysis; and administrative papers resulting from the NSHD's sub-studies. The catalogue also includes several publications arising out of the NSHD’s research.

Administrative / Biographical History

The MRC National Survey of Health and Development (NSHD) is a longitudinal study, meaning it gathers data from the same group of people (or ‘cohort’) at regular points throughout their lives. The NSHD follows the lives of about 5,000 people all born in the same week in 1946, and is the oldest and longest running of the British birth cohort studies. It has played an important role in highlighting the effects of class and inequality on people’s health and development over time, and has informed UK health care, education, and social policy for more than 70 years. The NSHD provided inspiration for a series of later longitudinal birth cohort studies, notably the 1958 National Child Development Study, the 1970 British Cohort Study, and the Millennium Cohort Study.

The NSHD began as a maternity survey of all the births in one week in 1946 in England, Wales, and Scotland (3-9 March). In 1945 the Population Investigation Committee (PIC) received funding from the Nuffield Foundation to go ahead with a study of pregnancy and childbirth, the costs involved, and the services available to different social classes in different regions. Dr James Douglas was appointed as the director of the maternity study. The data were collected by midwives and nurses visiting the new mothers at their homes with questionnaires in April-June 1946. The mothers of 13,687 newly born babies were interviewed, which covered about 91% of all births during that week in March 1946. The findings were published in 1948 in the book ‘Maternity in Great Britain’, which revealed stark differences in the experiences of childbirth and pregnancy based on class, and highlighted an alarming lack of access to pain relief for women during childbirth. As a result the rules were changed to allow midwives to administer gas and air more freely.

Although the 1946 maternity survey was originally intended to be a one-off, two years later a follow-up study was carried out on the same mothers and babies. Due to funding concerns, only a sample of the original birth cohort were included: 5,362 out of 13,687. This sample was chosen by including all those babies whose fathers worked in a non-manual or an agricultural occupation, and a random one-in-four of those whose fathers were employed in manual occupations. The intention was to make the new sample contain roughly the same number of children from each social class. The 672 children born to unmarried mothers were not included in the sample, as it was assumed that they would be adopted at birth and would be too difficult to trace. The 180 multiple births were also excluded, as they were thought to be too small of a sample size. As the study began in 1946, before the increase in immigration over subsequent decades, people from ethnic minorities are not represented to any significant degree in the NSHD (although there are notable Italian and Polish communities, who were living in Britain in the aftermath of World War II).

A Joint Committee of the Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists and the PIC oversaw and advised on the early survey work, and their membership is listed in each of the first 3 books, 'Maternity in Great Britain', 'Children under Five', and 'The Home & the School'. Committee membership changed as the emphasis moved from health to education.

After the follow-up survey, the participants were visited again at regular intervals over the following years in an effort to measure growth, and physical and mental development. The children took cognitive and attainment tests at ages 8, 11, and 15. In 1964 Douglas used the study’s findings to publish the book ‘The Home and the School’. These findings contributed to the Plowden Committee of the Central Advisory Council for Education, and to the introduction of the new ‘comprehensive’ school system in 1965.

As participants reached adulthood, the main aim was to research how childhood health and development, along with lifetime social circumstances, affected their adult health and function, and how these change with age. Now, as participants reach older age, the focus of the NSHD is as a life course study of ageing. The NSHD successfully maintains high study member participation rates, ranging from 77% to 94%, with almost all periods having participation rates of 80% or more.

Initially, each round of NSHD data collection was funded separately, by various organisations, and required new grant applications. However in 1962 the study secured regular core funding from the Medical Research Council (MRC), and the study became part of an MRC unit: the Unit for the Study of Environmental Factors in Mental and Physical Illness. Between 1979 and 2006, the NSHD continued to receive core funding from the MRC, but as an 'External Scientific Staff' team rather than as part of an MRC unit. In 2007 the study once again became part of an MRC unit: the Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing. In 2013 the study also became a 'University Unit', attached to University College London, and so the unit is currently known as the MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing at UCL.

Timeline of NSHD history:

1936: The Population Investigation Committee (PIC) is formed, based at LSE.

1943: A PIC sub-committee is formed to plan a study of maternity.

Oct 1945: Dr James Douglas is appointed director of the maternity study.

3-9 March 1946: Study members are born.

April 21st 1946: Data collection begins (8 weeks after birth).

mid-June 1946: Data collection is completed (sample 13,687).

1948: Publication of the study’s first book: 'Maternity in Great Britain'.

1948: First follow-up survey (sample 5,362). Further data collection happens every 1-2 years until 1962.

1954: The study moves from LSE to the Department of Public Health and Social Medicine at the Usher Institute at Edinburgh University.

1962: The Medical Research Council (MRC) begins funding the study. The MRC Unit for Research on the Environmental Background of Mental and Physical Illness is established, for the study, in LSE’s Department of Demography.

1964: James Douglas’ book 'The Home and the School' is published.

1979: James Douglas retires. The MRC agrees with Michael Wadsworth’s suggestion to reorient the study towards mental health, ageing, and chronic diseases. The study moves to Bristol University, and John Colley is appointed as honorary director. Only one member of staff moves with the study – Michael Wadsworth, who becomes co-principal investigator.

1982: The study begins actively taking measurements of various aspects of study members’ physical and mental health, which can then be used as baseline readings to compare with health outcomes later in life.

1986: Michael Wadsworth becomes director of the NSHD.

1986-1987: The study moves back to London, to the UCL Department of Epidemiology.

1999: The study begins collecting DNA from its members, so that the interplay of genetic and environmental factors in physical and mental health can be analysed.

2006: Michael Wadsworth retires.

2007: The MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing (LHA) is created, with Diana Kuh appointed as director in January 2007. The new MRC LHA is now responsible for the NSHD.

2006-2010: Data is collected from NSHD study members at clinics for the first time, using medical scans such as electrocardiogram (ECG) and heart ultrasound scans.

2017: Diana Kuh retires. Nish Chaturvedi becomes director of the MRC LHA.


The files have been arranged by the archivist into the structure shown. The files have been kept in their original order where appropriate, but where no original order was discernable files have been rearranged and split up in some cases.

Access Information

Certain restrictions apply

The papers are available subject to the usual conditions of access to Archives and Manuscripts material. All papers in this collection require the completion of a Data Protection Agreement form before access can be granted. Some files are either closed or restricted in-line with data protection legislation, please see file or item level descriptions for full access conditions. For further information please contact the IOE Archives at

Please note that no NSHD staff or contractors named in these documents should be contacted directly. Any enquiries regarding NSHD data collection should be sent to

Acquisition Information

Their immediate source before being transferred to the IOE was three storage sites: the UCL records storage site at Wickford; off-site storage with Iron Mountain; and a small amount of records from the MRC LHA office at 1-19 Torrington Place, UCL. This transfer took place between September 2020 and May 2021.

Conditions Governing Use

A reader wishing to publish any quotation of information, including pictorial, derived from any archive material must apply in writing for prior permission from the Archivist or other appropriate person(s) as indicated by the Archivist. A limited number of photocopies may be supplied at the discretion of the Archivist.

Appraisal Information

Duplicates, research data, and material of low archival significance (e.g. invoices, coding lists, photocopies of external publications, very rough notes) were removed during appraisal and returned to the MRC LHA.

Custodial History

These records have all been stored with the NSHD throughout their lifecycle. Few administrative records have survived from the period before 1962 (when the NSHD began to receive regular core funding from the Medical Research Council).


As the MRC NSHD is ongoing, additional material from the MRC LHA at UCL is expected to be desposited.

Related Material

- The Population Investigation Committee archives, held at the Wellcome Collection, reference SA/PIC.

- Medical Research Council archives, held at The National Archives , reference FD.

- Some digitised NSHD archival material is available online, through the MRC NSHD website: