NEW END HOSPITAL in Hampstead village closed in 1986 and converted into luxury flats. It was opened in 1869 as a workhouse for impoverished folk and in 1931 it became a hospital specialising in endocrine diseases. In that year, a clinic devoted to treating thyroid disorders was established.
On Tuesday afternoons during the years 1968-1970, when I was preparing for university entrance examinations, I helped out in the thyroid department laboratories at New End Hospital.
The labs occupied the dank basement under the Victorian hospital. The outfit was directed by a formidably bright lady scientist. She was assisted by a small friendly team of scientists and technicians.
The first task assigned to me was to make the afternoon tea. I had never made tea before without using a tea bag and with the addition of milk (at home we drank tea without milk). What I served was universally abhorred. That first afternoon, I was given a lesson of how to prepare tea ‘properly’.
The lab I worked in was dedicated to diagnosing and treating thyroid patients with radioactive isotopes of Iodine. Patients were given radioactive iodine to ingest in the ward. Then, they were brought to what looked like a dental chair in our basement. A technician applied a Geiger counter probe to different parts of the patient’s body to determine the distribution of the iodine. From this, diagnostic information could be derived. Today, this manual technique has been replaced with automatic electronic body scanners.
After scanning, the by now radioactive patients were sent back to the ward. There, they waited for their radioactivity levels to drop to safe values or to await further administration of the isotope for therapeutic reasons. In both cases, these patients had to wait until they were no longer emitting harmful rays.
To assess the levels of radioactivity in the patients’ bodies, their urine was collected regularly and stored in brown glass Winchester bottles. These were brought down to be stored in the basement. Each bottle was regularly inserted into a lead covered cylindrical container containing Geiger counters. Apart from white lab coats, we wore no other protective garments. Often, I helped with this activity. Thinking back, I doubt modern Health and Safety would have sanctioned our working practices in that basement.
At school, I was learning computer programming, and enjoying it. We learnt the principles of programming and how to use them in the recently designed Basic computer language. When the thyroid laboratory bought a programmable desktop Olivetti calculating/computing machine, I was the first person in the lab who knew how to make it work, to programme it.
The lab needed to communicate with the matron in charge of the thyroid ward, but everyone feared her. So, whenever possible if the lab needed to send something to her, they waited for me to arrive on Tuesday afternoons. By some kind of luck, the terrifying matron treated me kindly. I found her to be agreeable but realised that she needed to be treated with ‘kid gloves’.
My experiences at the laboratory under New End Hospital were both fascinating and enjoyable. They were also influential because they instilled in me an interest in physiology, and particularly endocrinology. I am certain that had it not been for those Tuesday afternoons at New End, I might not have gone on to making a new beginning at University College London, studying physiology.
Picture shows the former New End Hospital