GRIPPING A HEART with the fingers of his left hand and his right hand on his chest, he stands in knee breeches, motionless on a plinth and staring out to sea. This bronze figure is a statue of the great scientist and first to give a scientific description of the way blood circulates through the heart and blood vessels, William Harvey (1578-1657), who was born in Folkestone, Kent, where his sculptural depiction stands. The commemorative artwork was created by the sculptor Albert Bruce-Joy (1842-1924) and made in 1881.
Son of a Folkestone town official, William Harvey began his education in the town, where he learned Latin. Next, he attended The Kings School in nearby Canterbury before matriculating at Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge. After graduating in Cambridge in 1597, he enrolled at the University of Padua in northern Italy. There, he graduated as a Doctor of Medicine in 1602. Harvey became a physician at London’s St Bartholomew Hospital, and later (1615) became a lecturer in anatomy. In addition to his teaching activities, he became appointed Physician Extraordinary to King James I. It was in 1628 that he published his treatise, “De Motu Cordis”, on the circulation of the blood, work that remains unchallenged to this day. In 1632, he became Physician in Ordinary to the ill-fated King Charles I. In 1645, when Oxford, the Royalist capital during the Civil War, fell to the Parliamentarians, Harvey, by now Warden of Oxford’s Merton College, gradually retired from his public duties. He died at Roehampton near London and was buried in St. Andrew’s Church in Hempstead, Essex.
Folkestone, formerly a busy seaport, has restyled itself during the last few years. It has become a hub for the creative arts. Works by various contemporary artists, some quite well-known including, for example, Cornelia parker, Yoko Ono, and Antony Gormley, are dotted around the town and can be viewed throughout the year. Every three years, even more art can be found all over the town as part of The Creative Folkestone Triennial. This year, 2021, it runs from the 22nd of July until the 2nd of November. As one wanders around the town, one can spot artworks in both obvious locations and some less easily discoverable places. This year, the London based artistic couple Gilbert and George have exhibited several of their colourful and often thought-provoking images. And this brings me back to William Harvey.
High on a wall just a few yards behind the statue of Harvey, there are two images by Gilbert and George. Both were created in 1998. One is titled “Blood City” and the other “Blood Road”. Both relate to blood, its corpuscles, and its flow. It is extremely apt that they have been placed close to the image of the man who did so much to increase our understanding of blood and its circulation through the human body.
IT AMAZES ME that one can walk along the same route many times and miss features that turn out to be fascinating. I do not know how many times we have walked past Leinster Square near Bayswater and missed seeing a small information plaque attached to the cast-iron railings that keep the public out of the lovely private Leinster Square Gardens. Today, the 1st of April 2021, we saw it for the first time. Apart from providing a short history of this London square, it also mentions a person, about whom I have been curious for a while, since seeing a memorial to him near Portobello Road during our first covid19 ‘lockdown’.
An article in Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leinster_Square) lists the following ‘notable residents’ of the square: the suffragette Georgina Fanny Cheffins (1863-1932); the musician Sting; and the architect Sir Charles Locke Eastlake (1836-1906). The article does not mention the naturalist William Henry Hudson (1841-1922), who lived at both numbers 11 and 16 Leinster Square.
Hudson was born in Quilmes, Argentina, son of parents of English and Irish origin, settlers from the USA. His father Daniel was son of a Devon man and an Irish mother. William’s mother was born in Maine (USA), a descendant of one of the Pilgrim Fathers. During his youth in Argentina, William made many observations about the local flora and fauna as well as human activity. Some of his findings, mainly ornithological, were published in the prestigious “Proceedings of the Royal Zoological Society” and were communicated to the Smithsonian Institute in the USA. His life, his works, his travels, and his extensive writings, have been described in detail in “WH Hudson. A Biography” by Ruth Tomalin.
On the 1st of April 1874, William departed from Argentina on board the “Ebro”, bound for Southampton in England, a journey that lasted 33 days. One of the first places Hudson visited was Clyst Hydon in Devon, where his father had lived. By the 22nd of December 1875, he had received his ticket for the reading room at the British Museum. It gave his address as 40 St Lukes Road, Bayswater. Known as the Tower House, this was a boarding house run by Miss Wingrave. The house, which still stands is at the corner of St Luke’s Road and Tavistock Road, close to Portobello Road. It bears two plaques commemorating the life of Hudson. It was in this house that he died. However, in between first arriving at this address and his final days, he lived in Leinster Square for a while.
Hudson’s hopes of gaining recognition in the scientific circles in London were disappointed. His romantic and artistic approach to natural history did not chime well with the London’s scientific elite with its more purely objective approach and its disdain for amateurs, however diligent they might be. And also, as Tomalin explained, Hudson did not:
“…belong to the right public school and university background.”
Unable and unwilling to join London’s somewhat dry academic community, Hudson, often short of money, wrote and published a great deal: fiction, non-fiction, natural history, travel, and poetry. On the 18th of May 1876, he married his landlady Emily Wingrave, once a professional singer (a soprano). His wife gave ‘no profession’ on the wedding certificate. She and William moved into number 16 Leinster Square, where she let out some of its rooms to paying guests. Although she claimed to be two years older than her husband, it was not for many years that he learned that she was 11 years older than him.
By 1878, the couple had moved into number 16 Leinster Square. Tomalin wrote of Emily:
“She gave him [i.e. Hudson] a home, companionship…, and a chance to devote himself to the slow unfolding of his gifts; something of the security of the mother and child relationship which, as his writings show, was often in his thoughts.”
After the Tower House came into the possession of Emily when her sister died, the Hudsons moved back there from Leinster Square, where the letting business had failed. Hudson was a keen opponent of cruelty to animal life and killing birds for collections. He was in touch with some women in Manchester, who founded the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Birds (‘RSPB’) in 1889. From the start he was a keen supporter of the RSPB and became the Chairman of its Committee in 1894.
In the summer of 1911, Emily became seriously ill and increasingly dependent of William’s assistance. After this, she suffered more bouts of illness. She died in March 1921. After her death, William rewrote his will, leaving much to the RSPB. Hudson died a year later in bed at Tower House, having just put the finishing touches on his last book, “A Hind in Richmond Park”.
This brief essay hardly does justice to the life of a remarkable naturalist, who criticised Charles Darwin in 1870, claiming, in connection with the great man’s fleeting observations a particular type of bird:
“… so great a deviation from the truth in this instance might give opponents of his book a reason for considering other statements in it erroneous or exaggerated…
…The perusal of the passage I have quoted from, to one acquainted with the bird referred to, and its habitat, might induce him to believe that the author purposely wrested the truths of Nature to prove his theory…”
The book referred to was Darwin’s “Origin of Species”. Hudson’s letter evoked a long and detailed response from Darwin, which was published in the “Proceedings of the Zoological Society”, which had also published Hudson’s criticisms. Although Hudson exonerated Darwin of having “wrested the truths of Nature … etc”, Darwin wrote in response:
“… I should be loath to think that there are many naturalists who, without any evidence, would accuse a fellow worker of telling a deliberate falsehood to prove his theory.”
Tomalin points out that Hudson’s criticism of Darwin was not surprising because he was not a believer in evolution as formulated by Darwin. Hudson believed in the theories of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). Putting it extremely simply, Lamarck believed that, for example, giraffes developed long necks so that they could reach the highest of leaves, whereas as Darwin believed that variants of giraffes that grew long necks had a better chance of survival and propagation than variants which did not and were therefore less able to survive and multiply.
Hudson would have appreciated Leinster Square and its lovely garden, a haven for birds and plants, had he been able to see it today. He would have easily recognised Tower House in St Luke’s Road, which has apparently changed little since he lived there. Once again, keeping one’s eyes open even when walking somewhere familiar can often lead to exciting discoveries. It would take more than a lifetime of visiting the same place repeatedly to become familiar with each and every one of its varied aspects.
FOR SEVERAL YEARS, mainly in the 1970s and early 1980s, I used to join my former PhD supervisor, Robert, and his wife, Margaret, at their favourite camping spot on some rough ground a few yards south of the northern Greek seaside town of Platamon, a few miles south of Katerini. Robert favoured this spot because it contained colonies of a form of desert ant, whose behaviour and ecology he studied. Robert and Margaret followed a predictable daily routine.
After breakfast, which could only be eaten after all had taken a dip in the sea, Margaret usually set up a deckchair or a folding sunbed under the canopy attached to one end of the caravan and began reading one of the huge numbers of paperbacks that were stacked on shelves inside it. When not reading, she repaired Robert’s socks. Throughout the year, she collected his damaged socks, and saved them to mend. It helped fill the long hours at Platamon when there was no one apart from Robert with whom to chat. He was too busy watching and studying the ants to talk to her during the day. This was why she welcomed others, like me, to join them in Platamon.
Lunch varied little at Platamon. Almost always we ate sliced tomatoes dressed with sweetish vinaigrette. The tomatoes, which were both large and delicious, were bought from the ‘tomato man’. He was a Greek fellow who wandered along the shore with his donkey laden with tomatoes and other vegetables. Robert used to practice speaking Greek with him while he weighed out tomatoes on a hand-held weighing machine. The ‘tomato man’ did not appear every day, but the ‘goat man’ did. He wandered along the shore with his heard of goats, and always stopped to greet Margaret and Robert, who appeared not to mind when the goats stepped all over the area in which he was trying to conduct observations.
After lunch, everyone did whatever they felt like. Margaret sheltered in the shade. Robert, bringing to life the words of the refrain of Noel Coward’s song “Mad dogs and Englishmen …”, continued watching his ants out in the noonday sun. It is curious that these ants, which are so active at the hottest time of the days are referred to by some as ‘Englishmen’.
At about tea-time, we all took another bathe in the sea, which was by then pleasantly warm. Often after bathing and when we had tea and biscuits (just as if we were still in England), we would set off for Platamon in the Land Rover. Our first stop was the level-crossing at the southern edge of the village. There was a water tap close to the road that crossed the tracks that linked Greece to the rest of Europe. We used this to fill the large jerry cans that stored our drinking and cooking water. The water was then ‘sterilised’ by adding generous, but unmeasured, handfuls of small white chlorine releasing water purification tablets to it. Some of these tablets looked quite old to me. I suppose that they must have been effective because none of us ever got sick after drinking this water. During the water collection, Robert practised his Greek with the railway workers who looked after this manually operated level-crossing.
From the railway crossing, we drove into Platamon – or ‘Plat’ as my two friends called it – and parked. Margaret used to make a beeline for the railway station where, if she was lucky, she might discover a single copy of an English newspaper that was usually 2 or 3 days out of date. Few English speakers visited this seaside resort; there was little demand for the English press. Most of Platamon’s numerous visitors came either from Thessaloniki or from towns like Skopje and Bitola in what was then land-locked Yugoslav Macedonia.
Margaret left Robert to do most of the shopping in ‘Plat’. He had his favourite shops in Platamon. Typically, his choice of shop was dictated by the friendliness of its salespeople, which he considered more important than the quality of their merchandise. The three shops that he usually visited in the Greek village were a butcher, a fishmonger, and a grocery store, whose walls were lined from floor to ceiling with what seemed like every conceivable food and household product. One or two of its owners had lived in Australia and spoke English well, but with an odd accent that was neither fully Australian nor fully Greek. Each shop provided Robert with an opportunity to chat in Greek, which he did fluently but with a less than perfect accent. His attempts were much appreciated.
After my first visit to Platamon, I used to join Robert and Margaret there often during my rambles around the Balkans. I used to arrive at Platamon by train, never sure whether they had either reached it safely and/or were still camping in their usual spot.
Once, I disembarked at Platamon station at about 11 pm, and began walking towards the place where I hoped to find my friends. The grocery that Robert patronised was still open at this late hour. Its owners recognised me as I approached and beckoned me to join them at the small table where they were drinking beer out of tiny (shot) glasses suitable for spirits. They offered me a glass, which was the same size as theirs and filled it with the smallest amount of beer that I have ever drunk. After we had imbibed together, I walked through and then beyond the town to the place a couple of hundred yards south of the Platamon Beach Hotel, where I hoped to find my friends. I reached the darkened camp site where Robert and Margaret were fast asleep under the canopy outside their caravan, protected only by mosquito netting. Without disturbing them, I pitched my tent and fell asleep.
Next, morning, they were genuinely surprised to discover my tent pitched close to them. It was lucky for them that I was not someone who was visiting them with ill intention. They slept quite unprotected under their canopy and used to leave the caravan unlocked while they were away from it. Rural Greece was truly a safe place in those days.
Robert and Margaret stopped visiting Greece as they approached the end of their lives in the first decade of this century. The vacant land upon which they camped was owned by the inhabitants of a small village, Pori, on the slopes of nearby Mount Olympus. For all the years that my friends camped there, nothing was ever built on the land and it was never fenced in. Today, where we camped and sat drinking Martini whilst the sun set is now built upon. It is the site of Nea Pori. After many years, the villagers of Pori decided to make use of their seaside plots. I believe it would have broken my friends’ hearts had they arrived to discover where they loved to camp had been built on, probably destroying the habitat of the ants that Robert studied and wrote about in learned publications.
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.
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.
SOME YEARS AGO, I was walking in Stoke Common (just north of Slough) with my teacher and close friend, the late Professor Robert Harkness. The Common was a wooded area with a variety of trees. Some of them looked very awkward in that their curved or leaning trunks seemed to defy gravity. Yet, the trees did not fall over despite this.
Robert, who was a renowned physiologist, was also a naturalist. Everything natural aroused his interest. As we walked through the woods, he explained that the trees did not topple over because each of them maintained their own centres of gravity as they grew. These centres of gravity must, he considered change constantly during the long lifetimes of the trees. How, he wondered, did the trees grow in such a way that they never became unbalanced and always remained standing?
He never told me the answer. Maybe, he did not know, but ever since that damp grey afternoon with him on Stoke Common, I always look at trees and wonder whether anyone knows the answer to his question. This afternoon, I was walking along the lovely tree-lined path that leads to Kenwood House from its public car park, when I noticed some trees growing on a steep slope lining it. The trees’ roots seemed to be clinging to the slope, hanging on for dear life. Seeing them reminded me of Robert and his wondering about arboreal ‘assessment’ of centres of balance and a fine old friend, who passed away in June 2006.
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.
After I had completed my first (Bachelor’s) degree, I decided that I would like to apply to become a doctoral (PhD) student. In order to do this in the UK (and elsewhere) it is necessary to enlist a supervisor, an academic who guides you through the process of researching and writing a doctoral thesis.
I knew roughly in which field I wished to pursue my further studies. Someone in Cambridge was looking for a PhD student to work on something that sounded interesting to me. So, I visited the academic in Cambridge. First of all, I was not particularly keen on the man’s personality (albeit having only met him once) and also the project he was offering seemed far too difficult for me, way beyond my ability.
After the Cambridge episode, I discovered that the Imperial Cancer research institute was offering amazingly generous scholarships for PhD stuents working in their laboratories. I applied, choosing two of the projects that seemed to be in harmony with my interests, and received an offer of interviews at the institute in Lincolns Inn Fields.
At the first interview, I was introduced to the eight or so members of the team i was applying to join. They sat around whilst the senior members of the team interviewed me. It did not take me long to feel uneasy about my future colleagues, and as the questioning continued I could not wait for it to end. Near the end of the session I was asked if I was interested in cancer. In an attempt to cut short the proceedings, I answered that I was uninterested in that subject.
After an equally unpromising interview with another of the research groups that I had applied to join, I left the building and began walking across Lincolns Inn Fields, feeling relieved that the interviewing ordeal was over. It was then that an important tought entered my head.
A PhD takes about (or at least) three years to complete. During that time, I would have to work in a laboratory with the rest of a research team and in regular contact with my supervisor. I realised while walking in Lincolns Inn Fields that it would be important for me that I enjoyed the people with whom I would be working. A pleasant environment was more important for me than the precise nature of the research topic.
I returned to University College, having made the decision to ask Professor Robert Harkness, whom I liked and whose research interests attracted me, whether he would take me on as a PhD student. To my great delight, he accepted me. As one of his doctoral students, I spent a very happy three and a bit years working in his laboratory with his other researchers, all of whom were friendly and helpful.
Since that day in Lincolns Inn Fields and my ‘light bulb moment’, which happened there, I have attended other interviews (for positions in various dental practices). At each occasion, I have asked myself: would I feel happy working five days a week with the person(s) interviewing me? If I have not felt the right ‘vibes’ at the interview, I have always turned down the job however attractive it seemed. On only one occasion, I have been mistaken with that approach, which I was fortunate to have been able to take when looking for work.
What sparks off an enduring interest in something? I do not know the answer, but let me describe how just one of my interests became ignited.
When I entered Highgate School in north London at the age of 13 years, we were obliged to study both physics and chemistry. The classes for these subjects were held in large laboratories whose walls were lined with locked glass-fronted cupboards filled with a wide variety of scientific equipment and, in the case of the chemistry labs, jars of chemicals in a variety of colours.
At the age of about 15, that was in the late 1960s, we had to make decisions about the nature of our future studies. If you wanted to study science, you kept on classes in chemistry and physics and dropped geography and history. For a course in the arts, you kept on classes in geography and history and dropped the two science subjects. I decided on science. You may wonder why.
It was only the desire to find out more about the stuff locked in the glass-fronted cupboards that made me choose the science course. It was as simple as that! I enjoyed studying scientific subjects and continued to do so until I had completed a doctorate in one of them (mammalian physiology).
Many decades later, I revisited Highgate School and was taken on a tour of its buildings including the Science Block. I noticed that the cupboards in the chemistry and physics laboratories had been replaced. Gone were the glass-fronted cabinets. They had been replaced by cupboards with opaque doors. The contents of these wall mounted cabinets could not be seen without opening their locked doors.
I wondered whether I would have chosen to study the science subjects had I been taught in the newer laboratories where everything was hidden from view.
The title of this brief blog article was inspired by the name of a Russian magazine Аргументы и факты (‘Arguments and Facts’).
When I was a PhD student back in the 1970s, I did my experimental research in a laboratory. For a while, the maintenance of this lab was supervised by a technician, ‘H’ by name. H was left-wing in his political views and made no attempt to keep his views to himself.
One day while I was working, H and I started talking about the newspapers we read. In my case, it was simple. I hardly ever read them. H said to me:
“I read two papers every day.”
“Which?” I asked.
“Oh,” he replied, ” I read the Times for the facts and the Morning Star for the opinion.”
For those who do not know, the Times used to be Britain’s most authoritative newspaper and the Morning Star is published by British Communists.
So, for H, the Times provided the facts which he coud use in arguments inspired by the Morning Star.