Start right

MY MOTHER WAS ALWAYS CONCERNED that my sister and I had good shoes when we were children. We used to go to a shoe shop in the Market Place, which is in the heart of Hampstead Garden Suburb, where we lived. It was a store that sold the Start-Rite brand of footwear. What none of us knew in those far-off days was that the company was established in 1792 by James Smith in Norwich. His grandson, James Southall, gave the firm its name.

START RITE

Start-Rite shoes had a good reputation for making sure that shoes it sold fitted the wearers well. I remember having my feet measured both for length and width. The shoes were available in several different widths for each length.  For example, a size four shoe could be obtained in any of five widths, ranging from ‘a’ to e’. Thus, the shop assistant could ‘fine tune’ selecting the correct size shoe to fit a child’s feet. Also, the shoes were durable.

The shop in the Market Place had a machine that I was always dying to try. It was a tall box with two holes at its base and a viewing window at its top. The idea was that a child put on a pair of shoes, and then inserted his or her feet into the two holes. The shop assistant would then push a switch and look into the observation windoe at the top of the box. The machine produced x-rays which passed through the child’s shod feet and onto a fluorescing screen. By observing the image created by the radiation, the assistant could assess how well the shoes fitted. ‘Quel horreur’, you might be thinking if your mind operates in French.

Well, that is what my mother thought. Although not a scientist and having had little education in science, my mother knew very well that radiation was dangerous. After all, she knew all about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What she might not have known is that the bone marrow cells in children’s skeletons are very sensitive to ionising radiation but being a cautious caring mother, she took no chances. Therefore, I was never able to see the bones of my feet in the device in that or any other shoe shop.

I outgrew Start-Rite shoes long ago. The shoe shop in the Market Place no longer exists, nor are those foot x-ray machines still in use. However, one thing endures. That is my memory of posters advertising Start-Rite shoes, which were pasted on the walls and hoardings of London’s Underground stations. They showed a couple of small children with arms interlinked walking towards infinity along a straight road bordered by fences and rows of trees. I still think that this is one of the most depressing adverts I have ever seen. The captions on the poster are “Children’s shoes have far to go” and “Start-Rite and they’ll walk happily ever after.”

I started ‘rite’ and since then, I  have been walking happily ever after, but cannot erase the depressing image on the poster from my mind.

New End new beginning

HAMPS 23 Former New End Hospital BLOG

 

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

If he were a dog…

dog

‘D’ had terrible teeth. Not only were they broken, but they were also worn down in such a way that they looked like an aged rodent’s teeth.

He had worked for many years in a place where there were high levels of atomic radiation. Naturally, he was concerned about how much radiation he had been exposed to over the years.  On one of his many visits, he asked me somewhat irritably: “How many more x-ray pictures do you need to take?”

I replied: “I have enough pictures to take out your bad teeth, but not enough to save them.”

D seemed reasonably satisfied with my answer. At least, he never raised the subject again.

Some weeks later, D’s wife, who was also one of my patients, asked me why her husband had to make such an enormous number of visits to my surgery. I explained that the repair work was extensive and complicated, each tooth requiring several appointments. She replied quickly:

“If he were a dog with so many problems, I’d have had him put down ages ago.”