Career tracking

LIKE MANY OTHER YOUNG BOYS, the idea of being a train driver appealed to me. I am pretty certain that my parents would not have been ecstatic had I ended up in the driving cab of a railway train. Once my father told me that he did not mind what I studied or what profession I took up eventually, so long as it was not economics (he was a professor of economics). He had no need to be concerned about that, as what I could gather about economics made it sound unappealing to me. So, what did I consider after my urge to drive trains diminished?


From an early age, I used to spend much of my spare time drawing and painting, pursuits encouraged by my mother, who was an accomplished, but lesser known (and not self-promoting) painter and sculptress. In addition, in my early teens, I began to develop an interest in ‘modern’ architects including Le Corbusier, Mies Van der Rohe, and Frank Lloyd Wright. I read books about them and the idea of studying architecture, to become an architect, entered my head. My hope was to create structures as beautiful and innovative as those, which I had read about. After a year or so, I was walking back to school from our dining hall when I was struck by a depressing thought. If I studied architecture for the required seven or so years, there was a good chance that I would not be undertaking major, exciting projects like those which had made my architectural heroes famous. Instead, I might very well have ended up designing loft rooms, domestic garages, garden room extensions, and similar important but mundane structures. This thought dampened my enthusiasm to pursue architecture as a profession.

My next idea was to become a schoolteacher like those who taught me at my secondary school. I am incredibly pleased that this idea was short-lived because over the years the conditions that many schoolteachers have had to endure have deteriorated continuously.

My father, now long retired, was a university teacher (he became a senior professor at the London School of Economics). From my young vantage point, his lifestyle looked good. Despite working hard, which he did, he had lovely colleagues and many pleasant students as well as long holidays. His profession appealed to me and set me on the path of pursuing studies which I hoped would lead to an academic career. After completing my BSc, I worked on a research topic that led to me being awarded a PhD.

As I reached the completion of my doctoral work, two things began to worry me. One was that none the other British-based workers in the field that I was working (connective tissue physiology), whom I met at conferences and seminars, seemed like people with whom I would enjoy working. The prospects for obtaining post-doctoral work abroad were not good, and at that time I had no yearning to live outside the UK.  Another thing that worried me, which I only realised after I left research, was that it was a lonely pursuit.

To cut a long story short, I began studying dentistry. I had an idea that with a clinical qualification, a wider range of research possibilities would become available to me. However, I discovered during the clinical dentistry course that I enjoyed working with people, members of the public, who were willing to risk their teeth in the hands of students. So, when I qualified as a dentist, instead of going back into research and academia, I began working as a practising dentist. I did this for 35 years with varying degrees of enjoyment and satisfaction. Overall, it was a valuable life experience for me, as I hope that it was for my patients.

I have been retired for over two years now and love it. Jokingly, I often tell friends that my main reason for going to work was to retire eventually. But there is an element of truth in this.  Even now, so many decades since my childhood, I still enjoy railways and rail travel. I have not yet completely lost that juvenile desire to drive a train. Maybe someday, I might get to ‘have a go’ at the controls of a train. I have heard that these days drivers of London’s Underground trains make quite a good living. The money would be satisfactory but,  more importantly, the thrill of controlling the train would be a fine reward.

Have you, dear readers, been satisfied with the tracks along which your working lives have travelled?

Thank you, Queen Victoria

From worlds far apart,

Two folk come together:

Cupid’s bow does its job


When our daughter was a little girl in junior school, the members of her class were asked to name the greatest Briton in history. She nominated Queen Victoria. Her choice was based on the following facts: her mother’s parents were born in India and my parents were born in South Africa. When Queen Victoria reigned, she argued, both countries were part of the British Empire. This, she felt, made it more likely that both her parents would study in England and meet. Without Victoria, she concluded, my wife Lopa and I might never have met, and she would not have existed. Well, maybe she was right. I believe that the reason we met was due to two men who gave us career’s advice: Professor Lewis Wolpert in London and Major General SL Bhatia in Bangalore.

As I approached the time when I had to choose a university undergraduate course, I had no idea which subject to select. I was interested in biology, physics, and chemistry, but had no interest in studying medicine, or even dentistry, which I studied many years later. Careers advice at my secondary school was not helpful.

My South African-born parents knew many South Africans living in London. One of these was my father’s close friend, the late Cyril Sofer, a sociologist. It was through the Sofer family that we met Lewis Wolpert, who was born in South Africa. First, he trained to become a civil engineer. By the time I first met him, he had become an eminent biologist, specialising in cell and developmental biology.

Wolpert, on learning that I was having difficulties choosing a course of study, kindly invited me to his office in Middlesex Hospital in central London. He spent about an hour with me, listening to what I had found interesting in the science subjects I had studied at school. Having heard me out, he suggested that I study physiology at university. This subject would, he thought, encompass all that interested me so far. He told me that the best places to study physiology were Cambridge and University College London (‘UCL’). Of these, he considered the physiology department at UCL to be the best. I was pleased to hear this.

About five years before meeting Wolpert, my father and I had visited UCL because a friend of the family, the art-historian Leopold Ettlinger, worked there. All that I can remember of this visit was walking across the lawns in UCL’s elegant Front Quadrangle and thinking how beautiful it seemed. So, when Lewis Wolpert suggested that I apply for admission to UCL, I was happy about that.

At about the time I was discussing my academic future with Wolpert in London, a young lady, my future wife Lopa, was discussing the same thing with another eminent scientist 5000 miles away in Bangalore. The scientist, Major General SL Bhatia (1891-1982), had known Lopa’s mother’s father from when he studied medicine in Bombay. The two medics became close friends. When Lopa’s mother Chandra was born, Bhatia became the equivalent of Chandra’s god-father.

Chandra’s father died young having succumbed to blood poisoning while treating one of his patients. His friend Bhatia had a glittering career in science, medicine and the Indian Army. It was during his retirement that Lopa met him at his beautiful old-fashioned bungalow in Bangalore. Bhatia had studied medicine not only in India but also at St Thomas’s Hospital in London during the second decade of the 20th century. While in London, he had conducted research with leading physiologists. Like Wolpert had done for me in London, Bhatia recommended that Lopa, who was not keen on studying medicine at that time, pursue a course of physiology at UCL, because he knew it to have a fine reputation in that subject.

One morning in October 1970, I arrived at the Physiology Department at UCL, having travelled from my home in north-west London. I was one of nine students who had been accepted for the course. Lopa was one of the others. She had travelled over 5000 miles to join the department. We were greeted by the department in the Starling Room, named after a famous physiologist who had worked at UCL. This common room is where I met the young lady who was eventually to marry me.


In the bar at the Bangalore Club

Our wedding reception in Bangalore was held in 1994 at the Bangalore Club, a prestigious ex-colonial institution in the heart of Bangalore. Although he could not attend, Major SL Bhatia was the first Indian President of that elite club. Before that, all the Presidents had been British. Bhatia’s widow was at the wedding. She claimed, not without some reason, that it was she and her late husband, who were responsible for getting Lopa and me together.

The late queen_800

Just as our daughter is eternally grateful to Queen Victoria for bringing Lopa and me together, I am equally thankful to Professor Wolpert and Major General Bhatia for getting our paths to cross. I cannot acknowledge them for what was to follow; Cupid and his arrows are to be thanked for that.

Picture sources: (Bhatia) & (Wolpert)

Whisky for my teacher


During the last two years at dental school, we were assigned dental laboratory technicians to supervise us as we struggled to learn how to make acrylic dentures and gold crowns. Mr K was my crown technician. A friendly man, he used to listen to the problems that we encountered when trying to treat patients and, simultaneously, to deal with the often fussy and (necessarily) pedantic clinical tutors. Before any conversation could begin with with Mr K, the student would have to visit the canteen (two floors down) to fetch a cup of coffee for him and another for the student. Goodness knows how many litres of milky coffee entered Mr K during his working day.

When the number of days before qualifying began shortening rapidly, my fellow students and I began to look for practices where we could commence practising dentistry at last. One morning Mr K said to me that there was a dentist, Mr L, in the Medway Towns, who was looking for a newly-qualified associate. I had never visited the Medway Towns, which are about 80 kilometres south-east of London. A trip to the ‘country’ sounded attractive, and, who knows, I might have been offered a job. Actually, although surrounded by lovely countryside, the Medway Towns are far from rustic.

On the day before my interview, my father told me that Mr L had cancelled the appointment. I was saddened briefly, until my father told me that Mr L had said that Mr M, whose practice was in another part of the Medway Towns, was also looking for an associate. I rang Mr M, who asked me to visit him the next day.

Mr M turned out to be delightful. I knew that if he wanted me, I would enjoy working in his practice. He offered me the job instantly. I worked happily in his practice for eleven years until for practical reasons it became necessary for me to work in London.

Just after qualifying, one of my patients at Mr M’s practice asked me how long I had been a dentist. Not wanting to risk alarming the patient by revealing that it was less than a month since I had qualified, I answered: “I have been working in London for the last five years”. In dentistry, you need to think on your feet.

As I was leaving the practice to return to London after my interview, Mr M handed me a bottle of Scotch whisky. He said: “Give this to Mr K when you next see him.”

I did as I was instructed. When I spoke to a fellow student who had been directed to a practice by Mr K, I learned that a bottle of Scotch was Mr K’s fee or commission for finding associates for dentists who knew him.

I doubt that there are many employment agents or ‘head hunters’ that charge employers as little as the cost of a bottle of Scotch.