Thursday, 24 July 2008


Berte Bobath and discovery of Conductive Education


In a Hungarian-English dictionary the word pletyka (pl. pletykak) is defined as ‘gossip, tittle-tattle, scandal, backbiting; rumour’. In Socialist days pletykak had particular significance, as a major source of news and information. In a society where, if you read, something in black and white, then somebody had already been there to doctor it, word-of-mouth transmission and report assumed a high importance. What you heard at the hairdresser's, with one eye over your shoulder to check who might be listening, was as credible way of knowing what was happening in the world as were the media and other officially approved sources.

You do not have to be aware of the psychology of rumour to know how oral report falls a long way short of providing a credible historical record. Did you never play the children’s game ‘Chinese Whispers’? Great fun!

When the Foundation for Conductive Education maintained a permanent presence in Budapest (1987-1993) the gathering and interpretation of pletykak was just part of everyday existence, not least in the Foundation’s contact with the Pető Institute. If you had any sense at all you never believed a pletyka – but you didn’t ignore it either. The smell of smoke usually indicated that something was smouldering or burning, somewhere.

That anyway is how I used pletykak, as signals that I ought to be on the look-out for something (often trouble!), though not  necessarily exactly what the pletyka itself had said. Also great fun.

And even now, in the age of emails and the Internet, and even in the liberal democracies, in the absence of more reliably sourced information Conductive Education continues to generate its pletykak. That does rather say something about Conductive Education and its world. And I’m not talking now just about people from Hungary.

Let me tell you a story…

On my way home a couple of days ago I ran into someone I used to know. We hadn’t seen each other to speak to for a few years, so we spent a little time catching up. Inevitably the question of Conductive Education was raised (not by me, I’ve heard more than enough of it over the years!).

Who were that couple who had a rival method to Conductive Education?

Hw was talking about the Bobaths. Particularly, he mentioned about something that Berte Bobath had said to him when he had interviewed her some twenty years before  (he was a journalist):

She sent someone to Budapest to find out what Pető was doing and then she tried to suppress what this woman had found there.

My friend told me that Berte Bobath had somehow heard of Pető’s work back then. Easy enough, I would guess, on the Central European emigrés’ network in the London of the time. Berte Bobath had then sent a young assistant physiotherapist to Budapest to find out more.

Her young lady came back from Budapest brimming with enthusiasm for what she had seen and nagged the Bobaths to go out to Budapest and see the work for themselves. This indeed they eventually did, but did not think much of what they saw. But, here’s the rub, Berte Bobath told my friend  that she and her husband had already tried actively to suppress her young assistant’s enthusiastic reports, going so far eventually as dispensing with her services.

At this point in the interview, my friend recalled, Mrs Bobath had become tearful, saying she should never have acted in this way, but she had felt professionally betrayed. She had only acted in this way because she thought Pető’s approach to be superior to her own. Now she bitterly regretted what she had done and said that she never forgave herself.

My friend did not publish did not publish this interview, even though at that time Conductive Education was a hot public issue. This was because he received a letter from the Bobaths’ solicitor, threatening legal action if any mention was made of what Mrs Bobath had said.

…and another

I also recall years ago hearing a story from Mária Hári, in Budapest in the mid-eighties. This was to the effect that Ester Cotton’s first visit to the then State Institute for the Motor Disordered had been made because ‘she was sent by the Bobaths’.

One small item of triangulation – but just another pletyka!.

Standing up for history

This events of those days have remained buried for some twenty years or so, until a chance and casual conversation in the street. I  gathered that no notes from the interview with Berte Bobath survive. All we have of those events is just hearsay, gossip, pletyka, compounded by the usual pitfalls of human memory and confabulation.

And yet… and yet, can the story be made to stand up all these years later? Though the Bobaths themselves are long gone (they died in 1991), their Centre in London survives. Just possibly it has archived documents from the late fifties/early sixties that might confirm at least the account of their ‘sending’ someone to Budapest to find out more (modern readers may be unlikely to grasp just what an enormous adventure that would have been in those days, behind the Iron Curtain). And in Budapest, the Pető Institute also has an archive, newly opened to public scrutiny.

It should be a fairly easy exercise to make at least a brief scoping enquiry of both organisations. But should one? Knowing where bodies might be buried is in itself no necessary reason to dig. Mrs Bobath, at the time of her interview, sounds like she was at best ambivalent about exposing this episode to public scrutiny. Why trouble her memory now?

My own view, for what its worth? That was then and this is now You still meet antipathy between certain followers of the Bobaths and advocates of Conductive Education. I had another drearily negative experience reported to me only a couple of days ago. The struggle between certain Bobath-trained therapists and the advocates of Conductive Education has now, however, gone on long enough. Neither side is in a position today to waste time or energy on further needless internecine strife. There are bigger threats to the survival of both. At Tsad Kadima’s conference in Tel Aviv in December 2007 I experienced how the two sides can rub along, communicate and collaborate, and I know that in a whole range of contexts many others have experienced the same.

Anything that might contribute to rapprochement today is therefore worth looking at.

Just checking

In the meantime, with the invaluable help of Gill Maguire, this afternoon I made a quick check of the published materials available in the National Library of Conductive Education. If we could have given this more time we might have dug out a little more, but probably only a very little. From what we did find, a sketchy chronology emerges.
  • At an unknown date. Ester Cotton had found herself in Budapest (on a business trip, with her husband, she had told me) and stumbled across the then State Institute, and András Pető.
  • Some time early in 1965. Ester Cotton went to Budapest on a scholarship from the then Spastics Society (now Scope). Upon returning home she wrote a report of her visit. She was at the time still a teacher at the Bobath Centre.
  • Undated letter. Pető suggested that she should submit the report that she had written for publication in the journal Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology.
  • 6 June 1965. Ester Cotton wrote to tell Pető that Dr (Karl) Bobath had proposed creating a conductive group at his Hartlebury Hospital. This was a long-term subnormality hospital such as we had in the UK at that time. Ester Cotton wrote to Pető that she thought that all the children would be retarded and that she feared that Dr Bobath would not give her a free hand. She also reported that she had sent the report off to the journal.
  • 14 June 1965. Pető wrote to Ester Cotton saying ‘Fight the Bobaths… Do not work with Dr Bobath, get yourself independent accommodation…’
  • August 1965. Ester Cotton’s article was published in Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology. (That's a pretty fast turn-round for academic publishing, even in these electronic days. Perhaps it helped that the journal was owned by the Spastics Society.
  • September 1966. Dr and Mrs Bobath (Karl and Berte) made their own visit to the State Institute. They did not altogether like what they saw – but that’ is perhaps another story.
  • September 1967. Pető died.
  • At some as yet unidentified date during all this. Ester Cotton left the Bobaths (circumstance unknown) and was engaged by the Spastics Society as ‘Advisory Physiotherapist’ to introduce Conductive Education through the Society.
There will still be people alive with their own personal recollections of these events. Any offers?

From pletykak to history

Just how intertwined the histories of the two approaches were at that nodal point!

I have never been altogether happy about the tales around the first British ‘discovery’ of Conductive Education: somehow the story has never quite held water for me. Conductive Education is now an important presence in the field of disability, it needs the mists of pletyka blowing away, so as to reveal a clear, documented account of how it arrive at its present position. This is as true for what has happened internationally since the early nineteen-sixties as it is for Pető’s still murky past in Central Europe in the years before 1945. One day, who knows, we might even know what happened in Hungary in between!

The little
pletyka recounted here, and the quick dip into the available documentary record that followed, just perhaps cast a glimmer of light, raising as many questions as they solve.

Pletykak cannot necessarily be believed: they are no substitute for history. They can, however, open windows on to some strange landscapes, exploring which may throw up the documentation needed to create us some real historical record of out past. So here is one further pletyka, that I heard in Hungary in the mid-eighties, again from Mária Hári. It went something like this:

Some time in the nineteen-fifties, the Bobaths has 'sent' an English child to Pető's Institute in Budapest as a practical test of his system.

Did they really? What exactly happened? Where is this child now? Is the story substantially true? What real history, if any, lies behind this pletyka? Yes, I did ask at the time.

'Who was she?', I asked excitedly. 'Come, we shall read her records', she replied, and  marched me to the large record room. 'We have everyone here who came,' said when we got there, surrounded by shelves of meticulously kept folders. 'Where is hers?' I asked. 'I do not know,' she replied, what is her name?' 'But I don't know here name.,' Then how can I find her record?' That's the Maria whom I knew, so eager to help, but...

I found out no more. I guess that the file is still in the Institute's archive, and another story still waits to progress from pletyka to history.

A place in Conductive Education's history

As we now know, Ester Cotton could not be suppressed in the mid-sixties and went on to set in motion chains of events that brought Conductive Education eventually to far wider public awareness, The path has not, however, been smooth: interests have conflicted, feathers have been ruffled, and there have been some rather bad experiences along the way. Finding out what actually happened in London and Budapest all those years ago, identifying important common historical experiences, might with the wisdom of hindsight help strengthen the hand of people of good will who want an end to the still flickering conflict between the therapists and the conductors.

Berte Bobath could not have foreseen how Ester Cotton’s advocacy of Conductive Education would lead on to wider awareness and further interpretations of Pető’s methods, both in the United Kingdom and around the world. Along the way, this chain events possibly saved Pető’s approach and his Institute itself from extinction at the hand of the Ministry of Education.

In the end, therefore, Berte Bobath, however she handled things at the time, merits the universal gratitude of the international Conductive Education movement for ‘sending’ Ester Cotton to Budapest, if that is what actually happened, because by doing so she initiated the whole long and rocky process of the system’s internationalisation, and at the same time secured its longer-term continuation in Hungary. She is therefore a pivotal figure in the history of Conductive Education..


Cotton, E. (1965) The Institute of Movement Therapy and School for Conductors, Budapest, Hungary; a report of a study visit. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, vol. 7, no 4, pp. 437-446.

Jernqvist, L. (comp.) (2005) Peto’s letters to Ester Cotton 1965-1966. Cumbernauld, Jernqvist.

Jernqvist, L., Lancaster-Gaye, D. (2005) I’m no angel; a celebration of Ester Cotton 1912-2003. Cumbernauld, Jernqvist.



Anonymous Gill Maguire said...

It was an interesting search, Andrew, and just goes to show how much useful unique material is her in the library. All take note, please!!

Friday, 25 July 2008 at 09:46:00 BST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Andrew,

I am a conductor and a grad student in educational psychology. I would like to contact you via email.



Thursday, 14 August 2008 at 18:59:00 BST  

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