Whitehall II History

Sir Michael Marmot

The first Whitehall study, set up in 1967, included 18,000 men in the British Civil Service. It showed that men in the lowest employment grades were much more likely to die prematurely than men in the highest grades. Furthermore, these socio-economic inequalities in health did not appear to be fully accounted for by differences in well-known risk factors, such as smoking.

In 1985 the Whitehall II study was established by Professor Sir Michael Marmot (pictured) and his UCL team to determine other factors that might contribute to this social gradient in death and disease, and to include women. 

The baseline survey of the Whitehall II study saw the recruitment of 10,308 non-industrial civil servants from the London-based offices of 20 Civil Service departments between 1985 and 1988. Aged 35-55, approximately one third were women. This first survey (Phase 1) involved a medical examination and a self-completion questionnaire. Since then there have been ten phases of data collection. Further information is available on 'Cohort Profile: the Whitehall II Study'.

Social determinants of health

The initial aims of the Whitehall II study were to put social class differences in health on the map and investigate the causes of social inequalities in disease during the working life. This has been achieved with outstanding success.

In addition to the contribution of unhealthy behaviours and traditional risk factors (such as high blood pressure) in heart disease and diabetes, the Whitehall II study has shown the importance of psychosocial factors such as work stress, unfairness, and work-family conflict to socio-economic inequalities. The "Work, Stress and Health" booklet provides a lay summary of the key findings.

Whitehall II data have been used to build one of the most detailed pictures of the determinants of health in mid-life and late-life. To date over 500 research papers have been published based on data collected as part of the Whitehall II study.

Data sharing

In 2008 the study instigated a formal data sharing process to enable external bona fide researchers and collaborators to access the data collected by the study (see Data Sharing). To date, this process has been very successful and the Whitehall II policy and data dictionaries have been adopted by the MRC Data Support Service as a model of good practice.

Policy making

Findings from Whitehall II have stimulated research and sister studies in many countries and contribute to policy making in Britain and globally. Professor Sir Michael Marmot lead the WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health, launched by the Prime Minister in November 2008.

Subsequent to this project, Professor Marmot was invited by the Secretary of State for Health to undertake a national review of the evidence. The Marmot Review 'Fair Society, Healthy Lives', published in February 2010, laid out the most effective strategies for reducing health inequalities in England.

The new UCL Institute of Health Equity will build on this work to tackle inequalities in health through action on the social determinants of health. Professor Marmot and his IHE team organise and attend many presentations and conferences. Here you can find details of these events and press coverage.

On the 1st November 2011, Professor Marmot examined the link between status and health on BBC Radio 4, revealing what inspires and motivates his work.

On the 24th September 2012, BBC Radio 4 aired a programme about social epidemiology, featuring the Whitehall studies with interviews from Michael Marmot, Angus Deaton, George Davey Smith, Johan Mackenbach and others.

Page last modified on 30 jul 13 13:02