Jean Golding OBE: Children of the 90s

This is an extract from our first women in STEM anthology, A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Inventionavailable as an ebook for £1.99 from Amazon.

Suzi Gage

I’m very lucky, when it comes to research. Not only does my PhD allow me to research something that I find really interesting, but to do it I get to use one of the finest epidemiological resources that currently exists in the UK. Children of the 90s is a huge dataset containing biological, psychological, social and medical information about a group of children, their parents, and soon their siblings and their own children as well. The dataset is internationally renowned, with hundreds of papers published using the data, from researchers across the world.

The women behind it, Jean Golding, is a quietly spoken lady. Although no longer directly involved in the running of the cohort, she still conducts research using the data, and is often seen at talks and events in the department. In 2012 she was made OBE for her role in setting up and developing the cohort. But her journey to this point was far from straightforward, involving illness, personal hardship, hard work, and even smuggling (for a good cause)!

A growing familiarity with hospitals

Jean was born on 22nd September 1939 in Cornwall. Her childhood coincided with the war, and she describes is as a time of rationing, of making do, and playing with whatever was around and available. While Cornwall sounds like an idyllic location to grow up, Jean was beset with illness, which meant she became familiar with hospital wards.

Even before she was old enough to go to school, she developed tubercular glands, a form of TB, which meant numerous hospital stays of months at a time. This was before designated children’s wards, so Jean was often in a cot in the middle of a ward with 20 elderly women. She describes it as a somewhat traumatic experience.

It also delayed her schooling, which she wasn’t able to start until the age of six. Around this time she moved to Plymouth, and then to Chester, where a more serious illness befell her. Jean contracted polio, quite unexpectedly as there was no epidemic occurring at the time. This led to her missing a year of school, and left her weak and with a permanent major limp.

Her poor health did not stop her excelling at school, although it did affect the study choices she made. While her early life had stoked an interest in medicine and biology, she had spent so much time in hospital during her childhood that the thought of studying anything that would take her back there did not appeal. At school her passions were subjects like zoology and chemistry, which, due to her physical ailments resulting from the polio, she wouldn’t be able to pursue at University. But she was clearly highly intelligent and her school encouraged her to study mathematics, which didn’t involve prolonged periods standing at a lab bench conducting experiments. She was good at maths, but it wasn’t a passion for her. She was still talented enough to gain a place at Oxford University, where she started at St Anne’s College in 1958.

Oxford at this time was very much a male-dominated place, particularly in the sciences and maths. Across the whole University, Jean remembers a ratio of about ten men to every woman, although the college system meant that she mixed with people from many backgrounds. There were not many other women studying maths with her, but she describes her experience as reading very little maths, but having a wonderful time.

Although she would spend much of her adult life doing medical statistics, however, her first experience with that area of mathematics didn’t immediately inspire her. At the first statistics lecture she attended, the lecturer stood at the front of the class and made a statement along the lines of, “we’ll assume that this is approximately equal to that”. Jean, knowing nothing about statistics, recalls thinking, “this isn’t for me. I’m a pure mathematician”. She would of course eventually embrace statistics as an invaluable tool to glean insights in to understanding health.

Hardship and opportunity

Jean was at University at a time when career advice to women was, as she put it, “teaching, or secretarial work.” So she became a maths teacher. But soon personal circumstances would mean Jean would have to look for work that she could do from home. She married, had two children, and divorced within the space of four years. Her ex-husband left the country and stopped sending money, meaning Jean became a single parent. She needed to earn an income, but she also had two children to care for. Jean remained philosophical, saying that while being a single parent added difficulty in terms of time management, “I only had my children to worry about, rather than a husband as well!”

For a time, Jean took any job she could do at home, and found herself editing books, proof reading documents, and writing guides for teachers in the third world. But one of these jobs would take her life down an unexpected path: A group advertised for a statistician, and she applied. They wanted a person to calculate percentages, something she could do at home, and they paid by the hour, although very badly as Jean remembers it. The percentages she was calculating were on a large epidemiological survey of the health of people in the UK, and the small group she was working with were analysing the data and writing up the research as a book.

This was the mid 1960s, and there were no high powered computers or complicated statistical software. The analyses were conducted using punch cards which were then fed through a counter sorter. You could even make your own cards for specific analyses. Jean found this an exciting way to conduct research; being able to see what your data were showing, and potentially jumping to unexpected conclusions from what was revealed. This was her first introduction to epidemiology, at a time when she hadn’t thought about medical research since school.

Jean was fortunate enough to work with people who would take the time to explain the medical background and biology to her, giving advice as to what to read to learn more. For Jean it was a revelation: “The maths I wasn’t remotely interested in, but it was this detective story of why on earth does that happen? Can you think of an explanation? What other information do you need? That fired me up”.

Enthused by her discovery of this field of science, Jean successfully applied for a research fellowship at University College London. And, as she put it, hasn’t looked back since then.

Around this time Jean had a couple of role models who inspired her both professionally and personally. Dr Eva Elberman was a paediatrician. She had four children, which made being a clinical medic very difficult in those days, so she became an epidemiologist. Another female epidemiologist Jean worked with at the time was Alice Stewart.

Stewart would become known for ground-breaking work on childhood cancer: She collected information from the parents of children who had cancer, asking them about their background and events during pregnancy, and looking at their medical records. This method of investigation was unique at the time because no one had really considered looking at the relationship between events in pregnancy and something as late on as childhood cancer. Stewart’s work pinpointed X-rays during pregnancy as being an important predictor of childhood cancers, in particular leukaemia. Her findings were not taken seriously until her results had been replicated by male scientists, when the link finally became accepted.

You can read this rest of this chapter in A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Inventionavailable as an ebook for £1.99 from Amazon.

About the Author

Suzi Gage is a PhD Epidemiology student, using the Children of the 90s dataset to investigate relationships between recreational drug use and mental health. She has a blog called Sifting the Evidence, hosted on The Guardian website, which won the 2012 Science Blog prize. She likes synthesizers and running round Bristol, where she lives.

Twitter: @soozaphone