Health and Efficiency

Fatigue, the Science of Work, and the Making of the Working-Class Body

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Steffan Blayney

A new model of health emerged in Britain between 1870 and 1939. This model centered on the working body and was organized around the concept of efficiency. Grounded in scientific understandings of human labor, scientists, politicians, and capitalists of the era believed that national economic productivity could be maximized by transforming the body of the worker into a machine. At the core of this approach was the conviction that worker productivity was intimately connected to worker health.

Under this new “science of work,” fatigue was seen as the ultimate pathology of the working-class body, reducing workers’ capacity to perform continued physical or mental labor. As Steffan Blayney shows, the equation between health and efficiency did not go unchallenged. While biomedical and psychological experts sought to render the body measurable, governable, and intelligible, ordinary men and women found ways to resist the logics of productivity and efficiency imposed on them, and to articulate alternative perspectives on work, health, and the body.

Cover design by Frank Gutbrod
Cover photo by Frank Gilbreth, Motion Efficiency Study, c. 1914. From the Frank and Lillian Gilbreth Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of History, Smithsonian Institution.




Chapter 1
The Discovery of Fatigue

Chapter 2
Industrial Physiology and the Productive Body

Chapter 3
Industrial Psychology and the Human Factor

Chapter 4
The Market in Efficiency

Chapter 5
The Worker’s Voice





  • rights
    An earlier version of some of the material in chapter 2 was published as “Industrial Fatigue and the Productive Body: The Science of Work in Britain, c. 1900–1918,” Social History of Medicine 32, no. 2 (May 2019): 310–28.

    • MEDICAL / History
    • HISTORY / Europe/Great Britain/20th Century
    • HISTORY / Europe/Great Britain/Victorian Era (1837–1901)

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    • 978-1-62534-649-0 (paper)
    • 978-1-62534-650-6 (hardcover)
    • 978-1-61376-928-7 (open access)
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    University of Massachusetts Press
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    Please see the Creative Commons website for details about the restrictions associated with the CC BY-NC-ND license.
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