Obituary Professor Neville Butler

6 March 2007

Professor Neville Butler, founder of both the 1958 and 1970 Birth Cohort Studies and an ardent supporter of the Millennium Cohort Study, died on February 22 at the age of 86.

Obituary - Professor Neville Butler

Professor Neville Butler, founder of both the 1958 and 1970 Birth Cohort Studies and an ardent supporter of the Millennium Cohort Study, died on February 22 at the age of 86.

We take for granted that research following people from birth through to adulthood has value in helping to find solutions to the problems of modern life. The case for Sure Start rested heavily on evidence from such research and subjects as diverse as the effect of smoking in pregnancy and the origins of adults’ basic skills difficulties have been much illuminated by it. Neville Butler, who died peacefully on February 22 at the age of 86, was one of the pioneers in this field of ‘longitudinal enquiry’. He inspired a generation of medical and social researchers to study the long-term consequences of early childhood experience and the factors that reinforce positive and negative development in people’s lives.

Neville began his career after the Second World War as a paediatrician in University College Hospital, moving from there to Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children. He later became Professor of Child Health at the University of Bristol where he worked for 20 years. At the time, large-scale national longitudinal enquiry was barely imaginable and attracted little government interest. In fact, the first such major study in Britain, based on a single week’s births in 1946, established by James Douglas, worked on a sample reduced from the original 16,000 babies to 5,000.

The first of the three subsequent longitudinal studies to which Neville devoted his career started in 1958 as a perinatal mortality survey with a focus on the impact of the 10-year-old National Health Service. The conversion of the survey into a longitudinal study was fortuitous and depended on the need of the Plowden Committee (which conducted an inquiry into primary education in the mid-1960s) for access to a sample of children. By 1965 the survey babies had reached the age of seven -- exactly right for the purpose. Hence the funds were forthcoming to discover their present locations through tracing in primary school records every child born in the relevant week in March, 1958. The National Child Development Study (NCDS), as it became known, followed all 17,000 births and under the direction of Neville Butler and Mia Kellmer Pringle, became the main research vehicle of the National Children’s Bureau. The first follow-up survey led to another at age 11 and subsequent surveys at ages 16, 23, 33, 42 and 46. The study produced evidence for a series of Royal Commissions and Government inquiries ranging from the Warnock Committee on children with special needs (1978) to the Acheson report on Health Inequalities (1998).

In the meantime, with the 12-year interval between the 1946 and 1958 birth surveys in mind, Neville became convinced of the need to start another study in 1970. The Child Health and Education Survey (now called the 1970 British Cohort Study, BCS70) and again based on a single week’s births in April was longitudinal from the outset, with follow-up of specially selected samples at 22 months and 42 months and a first follow-up survey of the whole cohort at age 5.

Surveys at 10 and 16 followed - the second managed by a charitable foundation that Neville established after retirement from his Bristol post in 1985 – the International Centre for Child Studies (ICCS). Subsequent surveys took place at ages 26, 30 and at 34, when half the cohort members’ children were also studied. Although from 1991 Neville was no longer running the study, he stayed in close contact with it in its new location in the Social Statistics Research Unit at City University alongside the also relocated NCDS. Another move in 1998 took the studies to the Institute of Education where the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS) was established.

As visiting professor in CLS, Neville had the chance to pursue his passion even further. After a 30-year gap since the 1970 birth cohort study began, the 1997 Labour government provided funding to the Economic and Social Research Council to launch a “Millennium Cohort Study”. The study began in 2000 under the direction of Heather Joshi, this time comprising a whole year’s births and boosting the representation of ethnic-minority and disadvantaged families. Individual government departments supplemented the study’s initial budget further for their own policy purposes, including the evaluation of Sure Start. As a response to UK devolution, the Scottish Executive, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Government also all offered additional support by boosting the sample in their own countries. Soon after, the Economic and Social Research Council designated the CLS as a recognised Resource Centre with initial funding for ten years. Such developments might be seen as one of Neville’s crowning achievements – government signing up to invest in a research enterprise to which he had devoted his whole professional life.

ICCS supplied continuing support to all three studies and research projects based on them, seeking also to extend the work overseas. Neville’s commitment also helped pave the way for the coalition between the Institute of Education, University College, Institute of Child Health and National Centre for Social Research that formed the Joint Centre of Longitudinal Research. “Longview”, supported by ICCS and the National Centre, followed in 2005 - a new think tank devoted to promoting longitudinal study, and to ensuring that the evidence it produces is put to optimum use.

My first encounter with Neville was at a meeting in the National Children’s Bureau in the late 1960s when he talked about his plans for the 1970 cohort study. I was infected by his enthusiasm then and have been ever since. I joined forces with him nearly 20 years later as an ICCS trustee, and as director of City University’s Social Statistics Research Unit, taking over responsibility for the 1970 cohort study. He was an irresistible charmer, impossible to refuse. No obstacle was ever too much to prevent progress towards what he always perceived as achievable goals.

Neville was a distinguished medical scientist whose early work on antenatal care, smoking in pregnancy, foetal growth, post-maturity and optimum place of delivery was recognised through his membership of the Royal College of Obstetricians. But more than anything he exemplified for me the courage, commitment and campaigning zeal needed to move a field of science into new dimensions of progress. Throughout his life he persistently pursued the goals that through modern computing have only relatively recently become fully realisable. His genius was recognising the power of longitudinal studies to aid understanding of the origins of human successes and failures in every area of life from health to citizenship. Even more important, he recognised how significant this knowledge was for shaping policy to help people move their lives in positive directions. His death is a great loss to his daughters Fiona and Claire and their families, and his many friends and colleagues. He will also be mourned by everybody who cares about the use of medical and social science to improve the human condition.

John Bynner

John Bynner is Professor of Social Sciences in Education and past Director of the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Institute Of Education, University of London.


A memorial fund is being established in Neville's honour and contributions may be sent to International Centre for Child Studies (cheques made out to ICCS for 'Neville Butler memorial fund'), 86 Cumberland Road, Bristol, BS1 6UG (Tel. 0117 925 0835).