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.

The Turk’s Head

WE DROVE TO CORNWALL along the A3, a main road that connects London with Cornwall. Soon after it leaves the capital, the road passes close to Royal Holloway College (at Egham in Surrey), a part of the University of London. The campus at Egham was founded in 1879 and officially opened by Queen Victoria in 1886. The college at Egham was founded by a philanthropist named Thomas Holloway (1800-1883).

Holloway was born in Devonport (near Plymouth in Devon). His family moved to Penzance in the 1820s. There, they ran a public house (‘pub’) called ‘The Turk’s Head Inn’. He became a manufacturer and seller of patent medicines. He was highly successful at promoting his business by advertising in newspapers. Between 1837 and 1842, he had spent more than £5000 on advertising, and as he neared the end of his life, he was spending over £50,000 per year on promoting his products. The advertising paid off. He became one of the richest men in Britain during his life. His products were clinically of dubious value, but they sold well. After his death, some of his products were taken over by Beechams Pills.

Holloway was generous with his wealth. He is best remembered for funding and building the Holloway Sanatorium near Virginia Water (Surrey) and the Royal Holloway College. The college was opened for women only. It was not until the 1960s, that it began admitting male students. It had links with Bedford College in London, where my wife’s grandmother studied in the 1920s, having sailed over from India.

Today, we visited Penzance and walked past the Turks Head Inn, which is one of the oldest (if not the oldest) pubs in the town. It is thought that this pub was first established in 1233, following the Turkish (probably Moorish) pirates attacking Penzance during the Crusades ( The pub claims to be the first in England to be named The Turks Head. The building was damaged by fire during the 16th century. What we see today is a modification of what was built after the fire.

We had travelled almost 280 miles from Egham to Penzance, mainly along the A30 (a road about which I hope to write more). Thomas Holloway must have covered this distance many a time in the past. It was fascinating to stumble across his childhood home in Penzance and thereby discover why The Royal Holloway College, which I have known of for ages, came into existence.

Between Mortimer Market and Iraq

MANY LONDONERS WILL HAVE walked past Mortimer Market without knowing it exists. Yet, I used to visit it every working day for about five years. It played an important role in my life and greatly affected my career. How it did, I will reveal later.

Mortimer Market lies a few feet east of Tottenham Court Road (‘TCR’) between Capper and University Streets. Immediately to its east, runs Huntley Street that is parallel to TCR. I used to enter Mortimer Market through a short, covered passageway leading off TCR. Vehicles can enter the Market via Capper Street.

Mortimer Market before 1949
Mortimer Market before 1949 when this photo was published

Until 1886, Capper Street was known as ‘Pancras Street’. This street has existed for over 300 years. Its history is outlined in some detail on an interesting website ( Before it was laid out, the land on which it runs was part of Capper Farm, which was in existence by 1693. The farmer, Christopher Capper, whose widow died in 1739, kept cattle. Members of his family, his daughters, kept the farm going until at least 1768. After his death, the family moved to crop growing in preference to rearing cattle. In 1756, the Duke of Grafton constructed the Euston Road that ran along the northern boundary of the Capper’s farm. At first, the Capper sisters raised an objection to it, saying that the dust raised by traffic along the new road would spoil their crops. The Duke and the sisters eventually came to some agreement. By 1770, the Capper sisters gave up their farm. It was then bought by Hans Winthrop Mortimer (1734-1807), who merits an entry in Wikipedia and on the History of Parliament website ( ).

Mortimer was a property speculator and a Member of Parliament between 1775 and 1790. In the 1774 General Election, he was defeated by Sir Thomas Rumbold (1736-1791), who served as British Governor of Madras between 1777 and 1780. Rumbold became well-known for being corrupt. His misdeeds included what was effectively the theft of a precious ring from the Nawab of Arcot (Muhammad Ali Khan Wallajah, who reigned 1749-1795). Rumbold’s corruption preceded his stay in India. This involved, amongst other things, bribery during the election he contested against Mortimer. After a court case against Rumbold, Mortimer was awarded £11,000 in damages in 1776 and also gained the parliamentary seat that Rumbold had tried to win by cheating (bribery). It is a sign of the East India Company’s wobbly ethics that a man as corrupt as Rumbold was appointed the Governor of Madras so soon after losing his case of corruption.

Mortimer spent a great deal of money acquiring property in Shaftesbury, his constituency and also in London.  

The land, which Mortimer bought that had been the Capper’s farm, became known as ‘The Mortimer Estate’. Some of this estate was later sold and became the site of University College (‘UC’) London, which established in 1826. Mortimer Market began to be built on the western part of the estate in 1795. Old maps of the area show that in the 19th century Mortimer Market was like a piazza containing two parallel rows of small shops. This can be seen in a photograph published in 1949 and reproduced on a British history website (

By 1963, the shops in Mortimer Market had been demolished. In that year, a purpose-built structure standing where the rows of shops had once stood was opened as University College Hospital Dental School (‘UCHDS’). It was this architecturally undistinguished building that I used to visit during the clinical years (1977-1982) of my studies of dentistry. The building is so non-descript that it does not get even a tiny mention in Pevsner’s detailed guide to the buildings of north London.  Prior to 1914, what was to become UCHDS was known as the National Dental Hospital, founded in 1861 and located at 187-191 Great Portland Street (see: In 1894, the establishment relocated to 59 Devonshire Street. Twenty years later, it amalgamated with University College Hospital. From 1963 until its closure in 1991, 9 years after I qualified as a dentist, UCHDS was housed in Mortimer Market.  The former dental school building still stands and looks very much like I remember it, but now it houses a centre for the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases.

As mentioned earlier, I used to reach the entrance of the dental school by way of the passageway from Tottenham Court Road. However, the hospital could be reached via the network of underground passageways that linked various building of the hospital both with each other and UCL itself. To the right of the passageway if you face it from TCR, there used to be the premises of the Iraqi Cultural Centre. I went in there several times. On one occasion, I mentioned to one of the friendly men who worked in their shopfront office that I am fascinated by folk music from all over the world. He told me to wait and within a few minutes he returned and presented me with an album containing two LPs of recordings of Iraqi folk music. For years after this, I enjoyed listening to them.

During several of my brief lunchtime visits to the Iraqi Cultural Centre near Mortimer Market, I noticed something strange in it. Men would suddenly appear from what seemed like nowhere, maybe from doors hidden in the shop’s internal walls. When Saddam Hussein’s regime (1979-2003) began to attract western military attention, I remembered these curious appearances, and wondered whether there was something other that cultural promotion going on in this place so near my dental school. My suspicions have been confirmed: according to the writer Said K Aburish (born in Palestine in 1935), writing in 2004:

“Years ago Saddam Hussein used the Iraqi cultural centre in Tottenham Court Road to conduct intelligence against dissident Iraqis and to eliminate political opponents.”

Also, The Guardian newspaper noted on the 30th of April 2002:

“The Iraqi government also used some of the students on its scholarships as spies, and set up a London surveillance network based at a “cultural centre” on Tottenham Court Road. There were sporadic assassination attempts against dissidents: in 1995 Latif Yahia, a defector previously employed by the Iraqi government as the official double of Saddam’s brother, alleged that he had been attacked with knives by five men speaking Arabic while stuck in traffic on the capital’s Edgware Road.”

My time studying in Mortimer was quite exciting but not as much as what must have been going on nearby in the cultural centre.  Thinking back to my years of study, we had some lectures given us by a young Iraqi dentist, who was working on his PhD – something to do with denture fixatives. He seemed very pleasant, but now I wonder… 

While I was studying at UCHDS, I had wanted to write about the history of Mortimer Market. In those days before the Internet, although I looked at several books in UCL’s very well-stocked library, I did not find anything about the story behind this little-known part of London. So, what you have just read is what I was hoping to write more than 38 years ago.

Examining the past

ON 13th AUGUST 2020, MANY YOUNGSTERS in England received the results of the state’s university admission examinations. This year of plague and social distancing, 2020, the results have not been determined by the students themselves writing examination papers but by a clumsy, somewhat arbitrary, algorithm that takes various factors other than a student’s own ability into account. Things were quite different last year and back in 1970 when I sat the A-Level examinations required for admission to university.


Back then, as now, universities offered places to potential students subject to achieving or exceeding certain grades at A-Level. The place that was my first choice amongst the six universities I chose was University College London (‘UCL’). In ‘my time’, UCL invited potential students for extensive interviewing. I was invited to spend a whole day at the Physiology Department. During that day, I was interviewed at least three times by different people and met both members of the academic staff as well as students already embarked on their courses of study.

Several days later, I received a letter from UCL offering me a place on the BSc course providing I achieved three E grades at A-Level. The top grade at A-Level was A, the lowest pass grade was E. At first, I was not sure whether to be pleased that all I needed was just to pass my three A-Level examinations. Was that the best that they thought I could manage? No, it was not. In those days, if UCL liked a candidate at interview, they took the strain off the candidate by not expecting high grades. Thee Es was normal for most subjects except medicine and dentistry when 3 Cs were required.  These days, candidates to places like UCL would be expected to get 3 A grades or something awfully close to this. Well, having been offered a place subject to my attaining at least 3 E grades and being neurotic by nature, I began to worry. What if I could not manage the three Es?

I became obsessed by examination papers to such an extent that I used to use my father’s typewriter to compose examination questions that I hoped would never appear in front of me in the examination hall. Whether or not composing these impossible questions was a kind of self-therapy or simply an opportunity to enjoy using the typewriter, I cannot tell, but it did me no harm. At the very least, It gave me short breaks in what for me was long hours trying to understand what I was studying.

My three A-Level subjects were Biology, Physical Science (a mixture of chemistry and physics), and mathematics. I found that all of them were most interesting and not too taxing. When I was at school, it was possible to opt to attempt supplementary papers in the subjects chosen for A-Level. These papers were known as ‘S-Levels’ and were designed to test a candidate’s deeper understanding of a subject. I chose to do S-Level papers in biology and mathematics. The biology S-Level paper was enjoyable. I was able to show off what I had learnt from reading around the subject. One of the questions was something to do with discussing the origins of life on earth. Well, in addition to various then current theories I decided to include what is described in the first chapter of the Old Testament. I passed that S-Level. The mathematics S-Level paper was a quite different ‘cup of tea’. Even though I had attended special classes to learn the mathematics that was required, I was stumped. For the first 30 minutes of the three-hour paper, I just stared at the questions. There was not one that I could even begin to tackle. So, after 20 minutes, I walked out of the examination room, leaving a blank script on my desk.

I can remember where I was when I received the A-Level results in August 1970. I was in Italy with my parents and sister on one of our annual visits to that country. We were in Venice, staying, as we always did, at the Pensione La Calcina, where many decades earlier the eminent John Ruskin(1819-1900) used to reside when visiting the island. The establishment’s façade is on the Fondamente Zattere across the water (of the Giudecca Canal) from the famous Santissimo Redentore church (completed 1592) designed by the architect Andrea Palladio.

We had just eaten lunch at the pensione and were taking the air on the waterfront prior to retiring indoors for a siesta when Signorina Steiner, the manageress, came rushing up to us with a telegram. My parents opened it to discover that my aunt in London had sent my A-Level results, which to my great relief were way in excess of the minimum required to gain admission to UCL.

If I had not managed to attain even 3 E grades, I would certainly not have expected to be admitted to any university. I would have had to accept the result and might well have decided to re-sit the examinations a few months later. As far as I am aware, in my day, there was no appealing to have papers re-marked as has become normal in the last twenty or thirty years. During recent times, it is not unusual for someone who is not satisfied with a grade to have his or her examination papers re-marked. Often, the revised grade is higher than the original, but things can go less favourably for the candidate.

This year, when young people have not been able to attend school since March and have not been awarded A-Level grades based on final papers written under strict examination  conditions, they have been awarded grades based largely on statistics (generated by what appears to be a poorly conceived algorithm) rather than individual ability. Many students have been awarded grades well below what they and their teachers expected. Thank heavens that there are appeal procedures in place.

I remember how much of a nail-biting experience it was waiting for my A-Level results back in 1970. This year, it was far worse for candidates. Not only did they not know on what basis their grades would be estimated, but also many of them will have to remain anxious for even longer whilst their appeals are being considered.


I met the lady who was later to become my wife on the first day of the undergraduate course that we were both studying at University of London. We were enrolled in the same department.

I lived at home with my parents, who were very sociable and hospitable. They were happy to host friends whom I had met at the university. My future wife was a frequent visitor to our home. Often when she arrived, she used to present my mother with special leaf tea from India, where her family lived. This tea was her mother’s favourite, Lopchu.

Lopchu is a district through which runs the very steep, winding road that connects Dargeeling in West Bengal with Rangpo on the border of Sikkim. Recently, we were driving up this road towards Darjeeling when we spotted a side road leading to the Lopchu Tea Estate. We asked our driver to drive us down what proved to be a narrow road with barely any undamaged surfaces. It was full of treacherous pot holes.

We drove past tea gardens that resembled many others we have seen. However, because of the special connections between Lopchu tea and our two late mothers, we were pleased to have made a special effort to see the source of the tea that might possibly have contributed at least a little bit towards the development of the relationship between me and my future spouse.

A light bulb moment: sudden enlightenment



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.

Tram number 28



We had only been in Lisbon (Lisboa) for about three hours when we boarded the picturesque old-fashioned tram on the number 28 route, which winds its way uphill to the old Alfama quarter of the city.

The tram was quite crowded and I stood in the small entrance hallway at the rear of the vehicle. I looked up and noticed a sign in three languages (including English) that advised passengers to be wary of pickpocket thieves. I was just about to take a photograph of this sign when the tram reached the stop we wanted.  Getting off the tram was somewhat difficult becauses three men tried to disembark at the very same moment as me. 

When I reached the pavement, I noticed that my overfilled wallet had gone missing. I had been pickpocketed. The thieves got a good haul: several credit cards, my driving licence, and a large sum of cash. I was stunned for a moment. Then, we used our mobile telephones to cancel our cards. Our enthusiasm for Lisbon fell to an all-time low.

We were directed to the local police station, where we began relating our sad story. Before we had managed to say a very few words, one of the policemen said:

“Tram number 28?”

We were then asked to visit the Tourist Police in the centre of Lisbon. We walked there feeling very downhearted and wishing that we had never come to Portugal. The Tourist Police could not have been nicer. Between them, they spoke every language you could think of. They helped us contact various banks and assured us that whoever had stolen from my pocket could not possibly have been Portuguese. After spending about an hour with the sympathetic Tourist, we left feeling much better about Portugal despite our recent loss.

With my driving licence stolen, the rented car that I had hired from the UK was no longer feasible. To our great surprise, the car hire company, learning of our disaster, cancelled our booking without charging us anything – we paid nothing for the car we were not able to use.

Without the car, we had to change our travel plans within Portugal. One of the places we visited, which we would not have seen had we had the car, was the university city of Coimbra. We spent several days in that delightful city during the period that the academic year begn. The city was full of groups of cheerful students wearing archaic black capes. Had it not been for our ill-fated trip on the 28, we might well have missed this. As they say, ‘every cloud has a silver lining’.


This story was related to me by a good friend. She suggested that I publish it on my blog because it illustrates certain attitudes still prevalent in India. I have changed the details for obvious reasons and will tell it in the first person.

This happened during my days as an undergraduate student in the early 1970s. Those days, we were all hippies, often high on dope. I had a fling with Raj. Nothing came of it.

Later and quite by chance, I found myself enrolled in the same postgraduate course as Raj. We got together again, and I became pregnant. Although we weren’t married, I wanted to keep the child, who was conceived out of love, not as a result of rape.

One day, Raj, without informing me where we were going, took me to his parent’s home. I was not dressed appropriately for such a visit, to meet a boyfriend’s parents. I was in shirt and jeans, wearing non matching socks and tatty sneakers.

When we arrived at his home, not only were Raj’s parents waiting to meet me, but also various of his uncles. Raj’s mother, let’s call her ‘Mom’, made me sit beside her and the men left the room.

“So, where did you do it?” Mom began, “was it in a hotel?”

“No, in my room at the hostel” I replied, wondering why she needed to know.

“Oh, in your room… very liberal,” she commented.

“And how many times did he do it?” Mom enquired.

Irritated, I replied:

“Too many times to remember.”

Then, the men returned to the room where we were sitting.

Raj’s father addressed me formally: “My son has been unjust to you. We will honour you by asking you to marry him.”

Raj and I were duly married. Just before our wedding, Mom took me to be examined by a gynaecologist. I was surprised as I had already consulted one before I was introduced to Raj’s parents.

Years later, it dawned on me why Mom had taken me for the gynaecological examination. She was probably checking that I really was pregnant, and not falsely claiming to be with child in order to entrap her son into matrimony.

To save face, Mom always told people that my child was born three months later than its true birthday.

Read what you wish into my friend’s story, but try not to be surprised by it. After all, deciding ones spouse by means other than by arrangement is still relatively uncommon in India.

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)