Adding up


When I was at high school in the second half of the 1960s, I studied, amongst other things, maths, physics, and chemistry. All of these subjects require calculation, sometimes quite complicated. There were no pocket calculators and few computers accessible to schoolkids in those days. 

For complicated calculations, we had to rely on working out the arithmetic with pen and paper, or with tables of logarithms, or using slide rules. Today, you would find it difficult to buy either a table of logarithms or a slide rule. By the way, calculating with the latter required one to make an estimate of the answer to ascertain which power of ten the anser should be. For example, should it be in the hindres, thousands or hundreds of thousands? Also, when making divisions using slide rules, there were almost always two possible answers, only one of which was correct. A rough estimation done on paper or in one’s head, would determine which of these two was the right one. 

If you are getting lost already, stop worrying because this will not get more complicated.

In the late ’60s or early ’70s, pocket electronic calculators entered the market place. At first, they required enormous pockets and pockets filled with money because they were quite expensive. Well, they were certainly beyond my means.

In late 1973, I began working in a laboratory with a view to collecting experimental data to be submited eventually in a PhD thesis. One of the other PhD students in our laboratory came from Kuwait. He would travel there occasionally to visit his family. When he returned from one of his trips home, he brought me a wonderful gift. It was a Casio pocket calculator. Reading this today, you will probably think that was a lousy thing to give, as you can go into shops all over the place and buy a pocket calculator for a very modest price, maybe no more than the cost of a packet of cigarettes. However, when I received my Casio, it was a very precious gift both financially and in terms of labour saving.

And, now one does not even need to buy a calculator because there will be one installed in your mobile telephone. I suppose this is progress. However, progress is a word I do not like to use because in medicine a ‘progressive’ disease is one that continues to get worse, often leading to death.


Picture taken at Russell Market in Bangalore, India

Archimedes and Eureka!

As a young child I was fascinated by the following story, which may be apocryphal. Archimedes (c287-c212 BC), the great Greek physicist, mathematician, engineer, and general genius, is reputed to have made an important discovery whilst taking a bath. He noticed that the level of water in his bath rose as he immersed himself in it. This led to his famous Principle. When he realised the significance of the change in water level, he is said to have leapt out of his bath yelling “Eureka”, which is the Greek for “I have found it.”


In 1960, my father had to attend a conference at Kyrenia (Girne in Turkish), which is now in Turkish Northern Cyprus. It was then part of one unified country. We, the rest of my family, accompanied him. On our way, we had to change ‘planes in Athens. I remember walking down the steps that led out of the aircraft from London and feeling my face hit by a wave of burning hot air. I thought for a moment that I was feeling the exhaust from the ‘plane’s engines, but soon realised that the air at the airport had a very high ambient temperature.

On our return from Cyprus, we spent a few days in Athens. Our visit happened shortly after I had learnt about Archimedes and his Principle at school. In Athens, we visited numerous ancient Greek and Roman sites, and this put the idea into my head that somewhere amongst these ancient ruins we should be able to locate the famous bath out of which Archimedes leapt. Rather sportingly, my parents hired a taxi and explained to the driver the nature of our quest. He was happy to spend hours driving us around Athens, stopping regularly to enquire about the location of the bath. It was a fruitless quest. During the hours that we spent with our driver, he told us that he was Jewish. When he realised that we were his co-religionists, albeit completely non-practicing, he took us to see a synagogue, which was unmemorable architecturally.

Sadly, after spending time in the taxi, we were not able to exclaim “Eureka.”

Some months after we returned to London, I discovered that Archimedes had lived in Syracuse (Sicily) rather than Athens. If his bath had ever existed and still happened to be in existence, which was highly unlikely after so many centuries had elapsed since his death, it was there that one needed to search for it, rather than in Athens.


To read about more of Adam Yamey’s childhood travels, CLICK HERE


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.