Smoking drums

A DENTIST NEEDS manual dexterity and good powers of observation (amongst many other skills). My PhD supervisor, Robert Harkness, used to teach physiology to the first year (pre-clinical) dental students at University College London. He not only encouraged them to learn the rudiments of the subject but also how to improve their dexterity and skill in observation.

While the students were under Robert’s care, he tried to instil in them something of his spirit of scientific curiosity. Each student had to carry out an investigative project as part of the physiology course. This had to make use of the students’ powers of observation. He felt, quite correctly, that a good physician must be very observant. He had students, with their pencils, watches, and notepads at the ready, measuring, for example, the blink rates of people travelling on the Underground, or how many times a minute peoples’ jaws moved whilst chewing gum, or how often and for how long people scratched their heads. Projects like these, simple though they sound, honed the students’ ability to observe carefully. These projects also helped to instil something else in some of the students: many of them went on to have academic dental careers.

Robert had great manual dexterity and knew that development of this in his students was of great importance to those aspiring to practise dentistry. When he or his wife Margaret was interviewing prospective students, they always enquired whether a candidate played a musical instrument or enjoyed making models or sewing/knitting/embroidery. If they did, then there was a good chance that the candidate’s manual dexterity would be sufficient to perform dental procedures. Robert encouraged this in the practical physiology classes that he arranged for his pre-clinical students. Typical of this was his insistence on the use of the archaic smoked drum kymograph.

Most students doing experiments in physiology would record results from their experimental set-ups, be it a contracting muscle or a stretch of live nerve, on an electrically operated pen and ink tracing that produced a graph on a piece of paper tape. All that was necessary was to plug the measurement transducer out-put lead into the electronic moving chart recorder and wait for the results.

Robert insisted on his dental students using a kymograph with smoked paper, a mechanical predecessor of the modern electronic equipment. A sheet of white paper had to be attached around the outside of a metal cylinder (drum). This had to be rotated carefully above a smoky flame until the entire surface of the paper had been uniformly blackened by a thin layer of charcoal particles. Without disturbing this fragile black layer with a stray finger or thumb, the smoked drum had to be carefully attached to the vertical spindle that emerged from a cylindrical motor. The experimental tissue – often the students measured the contraction rates and strengths of lengths of rodent gut – was attached via a thin cord to a delicate lever which had a sharp point (stylus) at one end of it. This point was then placed against the smoked paper and then the motor was activated, causing the drum to rotate at a known speed. As the gut contracted, it moved the lever up and down which in turn caused the sharp point to displace carbon particles beneath the stylus point to leave a white tracing on the slowly moving blackened paper covering the metal cylinder. When the tracing had been made, it had to be removed from the drum without smudging it, and then immersed in some liquid, a smelly lacquer, that fixed the image to the paper. This procedure, I can assure you, is no less demanding on one’s manual skills than, say, preparing a tooth for an inlay or a bridge abutment or placing an implant.

Many generations of Robert’s dental students remember him fondly. Recently, someone with whom I studied dentistry at University College reminded me about his curious laboratory coats. He did not wear the long white coats that most scientists and many medics normally use. Instead, he wore a long coat coloured brown or ochre. Why he wore a lab coat that looked more like the work wear of an old fashioned grocer I have no idea – I never thought to ask him – but Robert did many things in his own inimitable style. Often his approach to things seemed eccentric at first sight, but usually after reflection you would realise that there was a lot of sense in what he did and how he did it.

Meeting the professor

AMONGST THE COURSES on offer in the third year in the Physiology Department at University  College London Lon, there was one with the mysterious title of ‘Connective Tissue’. I went to see our tutor Dr Roger Woledge, a specialist in muscle physiology, and asked him about this. He told me that it had been on offer for years, but no one had ever asked to take it. He suggested that I enrol in it so that it would be held for the first time ever, and at the very least he would discover what was on offer. I agreed, and he sent me to the office of Prof Robert Harkness to let him know that I was interested in finding out about his course.

As soon as I entered Robert’s cluttered office, I knew that I would enjoy studying whatever was on offer. There was barely any, if any, free space on the Prof’s huge desk. The walls of the office were crowded with books, runs of journals, pictures, old engravings, and even framed cartoons. There was a small paper notice stuck on the glass door of one cupboard. It was typical of Robert’s sense of humour and his take on common sense.

 His rotating office chair looked antique, rather like something you might expect to see in a bank manager’s office in the old Wild West. There was a glass fronted wooden cabinet filled with books and other objects. On the floor, there was a variety of things including polished wooden microscope cases. I was asked to close the door behind me quickly because he told me that his life would not have been worth living if the new black kitten, which had just emerged from a cupboard, was allowed to escape from the office. He and his wife, Margaret. would be taking it home that evening.

I imagine that Robert must have told me something about his Connective Tissue course whilst I stroked his affectionate young cat, but I do not remember what. All I can recall is that by the end of our brief but friendly interview, I had been enrolled on his course. When I reported this to Dr Woledge, he was delighted. The course was not to be held until well into the academic year, and, by the time it commenced, its participants included G Clough, who is now a professor at a major University, an MSc. Student, and me.

Some months later as I neared the date of graduation, I began investigating the possibility of starting a PhD and began visiting various people who were potential supervisors. While I was walking beside the iron railings enclosing the gardens of Lincolns Inn Fields after just having had two interviews that I had not enjoyed, I had a revelatory moment. It dawned on me that however prestigious a laboratory or potential doctoral supervisor might be, I would have to get on with him or her as well as his or her team of co-workers. I would be spending at least 3 years in their company. It was important, at least for me, that I should feel at ease with whomever I was to collaborate. If I did not, as I had just felt during the recent interviews, I knew that I would not be able to flourish as a doctoral student. Since that day, I have always asked myself whether I would feel comfortable working with whoever was interviewing me when applying for a post. Only once, I did not follow this rule, and then I ended up in a job that did not suit me at all.

On the next day, I visited Robert Harkness in his office.  As I entered and surveyed his undoubtedly individual office, I decided that whatever project that he had to offer would suit me as it would give me the chance to work in the genial company of Robert, Margaret, and their friendly team. He told me that he would be able to get hold of a Medical research Council (‘MRC’) grant for me, providing that I thought of an interesting topic related to connective tissue. He was not going to tell me what to research – I had to make that decision.

Then all of a sudden, he opened one of the leather-bound volumes that contained reprints of his published papers, and showed me a graph published in a paper that he had written for the prestigious Journal of Physiology. I forget what the graph illustrated but recall that it was divided into sections by several vertical dotted lines. He explained to me that he always had a great deal of trouble from the editors of the Journal. They were forever returning the manuscripts of the paper that he submitted to them, wanting him to make minor modifications and thus delaying publication.  He asked me to examine the vertical lines with a magnifying glass, and then I saw that they were made up of dots and dashes, which looked like Morse code. He asked me whether I was able to decipher Morse code. I told him that I could not. Gleefully, he translated the dots and dashes which he had drawn on the published graph and revealed that they spelt out the words ‘drat those flies’ repeatedly along the length of the lines. They had not been noticed by the journal’s fussy editors and were Robert’s revenge for their pernickety interferences.

Not only did I complete my PhD under the supervision of Prof Harkness, but also, I established a close relationship with him and his family. This friendship with the family, which my wife and I value greatly, has endured long since the deaths of the Prof and his wife.

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)

Learning by teaching


‘Doc’ mending a toaster in a friend’s home near Paris in 1978

Although my PhD supervisor was a full university professor of physiology, most people called him ‘Doc’. He was the pre-clinical tutor of the dental students, who undertook courses in academic rather than clinical departments of University College London (‘UCL’) during their first year of study. Doc’s PhD students were asked to volunteer to help teaching the basics of mammalian physiology to the dental students. I did this willingly. Once a week, I conducted tutorials for a group of six to eight dental students. Although I learnt a lot – teaching is the best was to learn, it was a case of the blind leading the blind. It was while doing this teaching that I met two of the people, who were to become owners of practices where I worked. They remembered me, but I did not remember them.

Once a week, the dental students carried out experiments in the physiology teaching lab. I assisted in the supervision of these classes. One of the experiments that the students undertook was pedalling on a bicycle rigged up to an electrical generator, which in turn was wired to a domestic lamp. The youngsters had to pedal furiously to get the lamp to glow, and while they did this their pulse rate and blood pressure was monitored.

Another experiment was connected with taste. The students had to prepare different dilutions of a chemical and used this to determine taste thresholds. The chemical used was phenylthiourea.  Some of the students could not taste this at any dilution. These people were lacking a certain dominant gene that allows people to taste this substance. The point of the experiment was to teach the students both about taste and, also, about genetic variation. Doc was keen for the future practitioners to learn that we are not all ‘built’ the same way.

Another experiment was examining the effects of various chemicals on the strength and frequency of contractions of short lengths of rodent gut in oxygenated tissue media. When we did this experiment and ones like it during our BSc physiology course, we attached the contracting gut too electronic force transducers which sent electric signals to an electronic graph drawing machine.


A kymograph attached to a pressure-measuring tube

Doc did not use this simple method when his dental students performed the experiment. The contractile tissue was tied to a long delicate metal lever which had a sharp point at the end of it furthest away from the fulcrum to which it was attached. Movements of the tissue caused the lever to move up and down. These movements were recorded on the smoked paper tightly attached to the cylinder (or drum) of an old-fashioned kymograph. As the lever moved in response to the contractions, the fine point at its end moved up and down and displaced the charcoal attached to the smoked paper producing a white tracing where the carbon had been removed.

Handling the kymograph drum was a tricky business. First the special plain white paper had to be tightly attached to the metal drum. Next, the drum was rotated above burning paraffin so that it became completely coated with the black particles in the smoke coming from the paraffin. When blackened, the drum and paper had to be removed from the smoking area and placed carefully on the spindle of the kymograph without touching the blackened paper so as to avoid removing the carbon coating. Attaching the gut to the kymograph lever was also tricky.

After the experiment, the paper covered with tracings had to be removed from the drum, again taking great care not to smudge the delicate layer of carbon and thereby obliterate parts of the tracings. Finally, the tracings had to be immersed briefly in a liquid lacquer that later evaporated and fixed the tracings (i.e made them immune to smudging). Only then could the students begin to make measurements of the amplitudes and frequencies of the contractions of the experimental material.

Doc had an ulterior motive in making his dental students use this highly obsolete measuring device. It was, he decided, an excellent way for future dentists to develop their manual dexterity.

As part of the pre-clinical course, Doc required that each of his students carry out a practical research project. He preferred simple projects such as measuring the blink rates of people sitting on Underground trains or assessing the rates at which peoples’ jaws moved whilst they were chewing gum. One group of students tested the theory (which has been proven) that people’s height was shorter at the end of the day than at the beginning. The main thing that concerned Doc was that his students were learning how to observe scientifically and systematically. It is most important, he felt strongly, for a clinician to be observant. He hoped that these projects would help to make these future dentists into skilled observers and therefore better clinicians.

Another reason for this project was for the students’ more immediate benefit. In the end of year physiology examination paper that he set for the dental students, he always inserted a question, which asked the student to write an essay about any aspect of physiology that interested him or her. Thus, simply by writing about the project undertaken, the student was guaranteed up to 25% of the marks.

Doc and his wife were perfect guides and became great friends during the time I was working on my PhD. I saw them socially often  for many years afterwards until their deaths. It was meeting and getting to know the dental student whom I attempted to teach that was one of the reasons that I strayed into dentistry.

The pencil and the peas


I spent three years working on the experimental aspects of my PhD topic at University College London (‘UCL’) in a laboratory in the Physiology Department. Throughout that time there were always one or two other PhD students working in the same room. ‘Wink’, our supervisor’s wife, was a chemist. She often worked alongside us. Generally, the atmosphere in the laboratory was very congenial.

We were joined by a new PhD student sometime during my second year in the lab. Fortunately, I cannot recall her name, but let’s call her ‘June’.

One morning, June asked me whether she could borrow a pencil from me. As pencils were few and far between in our lab, I said to her: “Make sure you give it back, please.” To which she answered in an unfriendly tone: “Don’t be so Jewish.”

Now, it so happens that I am born Jewish. Although I am the least observant (in religious terms) Jewish person you are ever likely to meet, I am not happy when the word ‘Jewish’ or ‘Jew’ is used pejoratively. Wink must have seen my face flush, because she said to June: “That was unnecessary.”

Although it was almost innocuous, the pencil incident made me wary of June.

Some month’s later, Wink and her husband invited all their PhD students to be their guests at the annual Physiological Society Dinner, which was being held at UCL. I was seated beside Wink and opposite June. When the main course arrived, there were green peas on our plates. I do not like these small round spheres at all.

June noticed me pushing them aside on my plate, and said: “Is your religion also against peas? I must remember that when I invite you around to my place for dinner.” Feeling my face warming, I said to June: “Even if you were to beg me to come to eat at your place, I would have no hesitation in refusing.” Hearing that, June’s face turned bright red. She stood up and without saying anything, left the dining hall. Wink turned to me, and whispered: “Well said, Adam.”

June abandoned her PhD and our lab not long after this dinner.


Now, many years later, I am still sensitive about anti-Semitic remarks, but also deeply curious as to why European people make them, often when they have had little or no contact with Jewish people. In India, which I visit often, although there have never been many Jewish people there, there is barely, if any, prejudice against them. Often Indian people extol the virtues of Jewish people.