Which buses do London bus drivers use

The bus driver's stomach 1937

Digestive Disorders and the Shaping of Modern Politics

by Rhodri Hayward

An illustrious group of amateur anthropologists, members of the newly formed British research organization Mass observation, fanned out in London on May 12, 1937, to explore the collective fantasies associated with the coronation of George I. Mass observation was a peculiar organization. Located somewhere between a polling institute and a surrealist experiment, its members intended to uncover the secret organizational principles behind the details of everyday life they had gathered.

On May 12, observers noted, among other things, the spontaneous celebrations of the masses, special forms of commemorations and attempts to seduce soldiers, but, as one commentator noted, oddly enough, no one mentioned the bus strike.1 That it was overlooked was disappointing. In many ways, the absence of omnibuses on London's streets was just the momentous occurrence on which Mass observation was waiting. The strike marked an important moment in the history of emotion and the rise of English modernism. It was the time when emotions - especially anxiety and depression - emerged as reference points for policy programs and when negotiating with industry. The Coronation Bus Strike of 1937 heralded a new kind of politics. Although there was already a long tradition of relying on internal conditions such as hope or complaint when expressing political demands, the arguments that arose in connection with the bus strike were a novelty. The inner feelings that were the basis for political action were not simply articulated in demagogic speeches or radical pamphlets, but were made visible through a combination of novel statistical methods and psychosomatic medicine. At the Coronation Bus Strike epidemiology became the medium of political debate.

The bus strike was the result of concerted action by Busman's Rank and File, the last major union-led syndical labor movement Transport and General Worker's Union (TGWU). The bus drivers fought for the introduction of the seven-hour working day, arguing that the intensity of the work led to a deterioration in their general health. The demands were based on two different arguments. On the one hand, the bus drivers could fall back on a large corpus of documents such as timetables, route maps, traffic reports and duty rosters, which illustrate the intensification of the workload. On the other hand, they could also refer to radical changes in their inner workings. Rising stress and anxiety, they argued, had led to a new type of digestive disorder - the "bus driver's stomach" - which was documented in the bus company's medical records and health insurance claims. This new clinical picture, which emerged from a mixture of psychosomatic theories, new patterns of somatization and new documentation in insurance, was at the center of the discussion in 1937.

As a disease, the "bus driver's stomach" was a short-lived phenomenon. Its first mention is in the hospital and employee files in the early 1930s. By the 1960s it had disappeared from popular and medical literature. It was a disease of its time. Bus driver working for Llewellyn Smith's New Survey of London interviewed attributed the ailment to fast and irregular meals, sedentary driving, carbon monoxide fumes, and relentless work pressure.2 This general connection between the plight of bus drivers and the problems of the modern age was based on the longstanding argument in British medicine that the emotional distress was linked to nutritional health. As early as the writings of 18th and early 19th century doctors, including Georg Cheyne and James Johnson, poor digestion was linked to national epidemics of hypochondria. At the beginning of the 20th century, digestive disorders were often associated with weak nerves and neurasthenia. Although this connection was long-established, the basis of this connection was understood in two different ways. In nineteenth-century writings, it was poor digestion that broke mind and character. The stomach develops tics and sensitivity to bad food or gluttony, which leads to deterioration in mood or deprivation of nerve energy.

In the 20th century, however, perceptions of the mind-stomach relationship began to change. Digestive disorders were no longer seen as the cause of psychological problems, but were now understood as their result. Stress undermines digestion.

The transformation of the stomach into a stress barometer was based on a complex interplay of different approaches. Initially, there were a number of practical interventions that made it possible to measure the shape and contents of the stomach in different situations. From the end of the 19th century many new techniques emerged: the gastrograph, Ryle's "gastro-examination tube", X-rays and fractional stomach analysis - which, when combined, revealed the mysterious activities of the stomach and made them measurable. These new techniques did not show a direct link between the activities of the stomach and the digestive process. Experiments on patients with open fistulas and on laboratory animals such as Pavlow's dogs showed that the production of pepsin and gastric acid were not directly related to diet and digestion. Although in most cases the prospect of food and the associated visual and olfactory key stimuli triggered stomach movements and enzyme production, this process was interrupted in frightened or frightened animals. As noted by Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon, gastric juices were not produced when frightened laboratory cats were offered food, but quickly set in when petted. The disparity between gastric activities and the situation in which the animals found themselves was explained by the introduction of a further time order. The stomach does not just react to external stimuli such as food or impending hunger; it tries rather primitive responses to perceived threats. Walter Alvarez, the author of the classic Nervous indigestion (1930) noted that, "These nervous disorders, which are of little use to us today, are remnants from our cave-dwelling ancestors, whose lives at all times depended on the strength drawn from the internal organs and concentrated in the muscles was made to be ready for fight or flight. "3

In connection with medical technologies, the stomach encompassed different time orders. He united the present, lived time of modernity with the primeval times of evolution and thus enabled a new form of criticism.

In 1933 union officials began fighting for a government investigation into the prevalence of indigestion among bus drivers. As a result of a series of agreements with employers in which employees agreed to drive at increased speed (around 17 km / h on average), bus drivers complained of unbearable stress. A year later that was true Medical Research Council (MRC) to organize a corresponding investigation. Although leading epidemiologists in the country doubted it would ever be possible to measure exposure, Austin Bradford Hill of the London School of Tropical Hygiene and Medicine selected to lead the investigation.

Hill had modest goals. Based on the finding that the number of reported illnesses was influenced by a number of factors, ranging from the average age of the workforce to the amount of sick pay due, he began by comparing the number of gastritis cases among bus drivers with those among tram drivers - as both Groups had a similar age profile, employer, and insurance system. By their division of labor, which divided the workers into two comparable groups, they represented a kind of natural experiment that could be used for comparative analysis. Hill’s election was supported by representatives from the TGWU, who claimed that it was well known that tram drivers were in some way protected from bus driver problems.

Hill's initial numbers, leaked from the meetings between the MRC and TGWU representatives, suggested that gastric illness was slightly more common among middle-aged bus drivers.

16.3 percent of all sick days of bus drivers between the ages of 40 and 49 were attributed to gastric diseases, while tram drivers of the same age group recorded only 13.5 sick days for this. Although the proportional difference was on the small side and Hill avoided aetiological speculation, the mere fact that he was abstracting gastritis cases from medical records and grouping them into a single category for comparison was reason enough to use the "bus driver's stomach" as one Reify category. Stomach pain and disorders that previously appeared as symptoms in many different illnesses - from stomach ulcers to the flu - have now become a clinical picture that has been associated with a particular occupation. The very fact that the bus driver's stomach was examined in more detail gave it a certain objectivity and consistency, as the occurrence was measured between different age groups and in different occupations. Statistics conjured up a new clinical picture.

Although Bradford Hill maintained his very doubtful stance about the causes of the alleged disorder, the unions, in particular, did Rank and File Movement everything to relate the disease to the conditions of modern work. On December 2, 1936, John Davies, science correspondent for the News Chronicle, the news of the "strange illness of London bus drivers" and urged the public to have more compassion for the bad-tempered ticket inspectors, as the stress of irregular mealtimes and toilet breaks puts them in a situation where "no living being is expected that it can control gastric juices or mood ".4 A month later the Sunday newspaper warns Reynolds News, female readers about to be seduced by the glamor of the quick wittedness of young bus drivers and their uniforms. The wives of bus drivers like Mrs. Dust and Mrs. Cravitz of Walthamstow, the paper said, would witness how the bus driving had ruined their husbands.5

Three months after Hill's report became public, questions were asked in Parliament and the epidemiological analysis found its way into union pamphlets and protest songs. Published in April 1937 Rank and File Movement the book "London Busmen demand the right to live a little longer".

With reference to health classifications from the First World War, the authors complained that the unspeakable stresses and strains on the health and nervous system of bus drivers and turned A1 men into C3 junk. Based on Hill's numbers and the files kept by the London Omnibus Company (LGOC) Employees Friendly Society led, they argued that only 10 percent of bus drivers reach retirement age (343 out of 3.785), a third will be laid off with an average of 46 years of age for poor health, and 20 percent (877) will die while on duty. Radically combining death statistics with folk music, the bus drivers composed a lament based on Hill’s numbers to the tune of Clementine:

London bus drivers stick together
It is your right to see the truth
Although riding the bus can be exciting
Can we prove it kills too?
Only 4 men out of 100
Will be 65 years old
What's the use of having a pension?
When you're no longer alive

A month later, 27,000 London bus drivers and ticket inspectors went on strike. On May 3, 1937, the government ordered a labor court investigation in which the claims of both sides were heard. Psychologists and epidemiologists including Millais Culpin and Bradford Hill were called as expert witnesses. However, turning to scientific evidence did not provide a solution. Instead, there were more and more calls for more detailed investigations, which only ended with the outbreak of World War II.

But although the research did not provide a solution, it showed how the understanding of emotions and practices in politics had changed. The biologist and Marxist J.B.S. Haldane noted in the Communist newspaper in 1939 Daily worker An: "The most common causes of gastritis - an inflamed and irritated stomach - are worry and fear. They are particularly common among bus drivers and business travelers. I suffered from them for 15 years until I read Lenin and other authors who showed me what to do with society was out of order and how it needed to be changed. Since then I have no longer needed magnesium. "6 Emotion, as the "bus driver's stomach" made clear, was not an individual problem. It has its roots in the problems of the social order and the possibility of social justice.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels stated that under the conditions of modernity "[A] ll fixed, rusty conditions with their entourage of time-honored ideas and views ... are dissolved, all newly formed obsolete before they can ossify. Everything standing and standing evaporates, everything sacred is desecrated, and people are finally forced to look at their position in life and their mutual relationships with sober eyes. "7 Still, the bus drivers' struggle shows that this was not a straightforward process. By combining psychosomatic theory, insurance records, and statistical techniques, what were fleeting - moments of inner anxiety and stress - were turned into permanent objects that, in turn, could serve as the foundation stones for a better or more just world.


1Humphrey Jennings and Charles Madge, eds., May the Twelfth: Mass Observation Day Surveys by over Two Hundred Observers, 1937 (London: Faber and Faber, 1987).

2 H. Llewellyn Smith et. al., The New Survey of London Life and Labou, vol. VII: London Industries III (London: P. S. King & Son, 1934), 87.

3 Walter Alvarez, Nervous digestion (London: William Heinemann, 1930), 26. Orig. Quote: “these nervous inhibitions, of little use to us today, are survivals from our cave dwelling forebears whose lives at any moment might depend on the strength that could be withdrawn from the inner organs and concentrated in muscles needed for fighting or running away. "

4 [John Langdon Davies]. "Strange Illness of Bus Conductors," News Chronicle (December 2, 1936), 2.

5 "Busmen's Wives Tell: The Heavy Toll of a Driver’s Job," Reynolds News (2 May 1937), 5.

6 J. B. S. Haldane, "Pain-Killers," in idem, Science and Everyday Life [1939] (Harmondsworth: Pelican Books, 1941), 155. Orig. Quote: "The commonest cause of gastritis - that is to say an inflamed and irritable stomach - is worry and anxiety. It is particularly common among busmen and traveling salesmen. I had it for fifteen years until I read Lenin and other writers, who showed me what was wrong with our society and how to cure it. Since then I have needed no magnesia. "

7 Quotation from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, "Manifesto of the Communist Party", in ibid., Works, Volume 4 (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1972), 465.