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.

SL BHATIA 3

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: semanticscholar.org (Bhatia) & retractionwatch.com (Wolpert)

Learning by teaching

DOC 1

‘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.

DOC 2

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

PENCIL 2

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.

PENCIL 1

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.