Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Apart from anatomy, new medical students study physiology, which included biochemistry in my day. I must say I was looking forward to this. At school I had been excited by the descriptions of DNA and protein chemistry in Scientific American. Was I disappointed! In the whole course DNA was not mentioned once. The Professor had qualified in 1923 and had been appointed in 1936. His knowledge was all pre-war and he was also a boring lecturer. Not as boring as some of his underlings who simply read out the relevant chapter of Bell, Davidson and Scarborough, the textbook we were using.

The practicals were designed like the anatomy practicals to coarsen our sensibilities. As I remember they consisted mainly of mutilating small animals. Our behaviour to frogs would nowadays have us petrol bombed by the Animal Liberation Front. It was necessary to stun the animal first. To do this one picked up the frog by its hind legs and swung it to give it a hefty clunk on the edge of the laboratory bench. Then using scissors one cut its head off leaving the lower jaw intact. The next operation was to 'pith' the frog by inserting a metal probe down its spinal cord and pulping it. This was such an unpleasant task that the girls got the boys to do it for them. After that it was necessary to remove a hind leg from the corpse whose heart was still beating. The leg had the femoral nerve attached for this was the purpose of the experiment. We were to show that passing an electric current down the nerve would make the frog's thigh muscle twitch. The electric current was generated by two pieces of wire wrapped round each other, one made of copper and one of zinc. This was an experiment first performed by Galvani (of galvanic current and galvanized buckets fame) in the eighteenth century. The twitching was recorded on a smoked drum.

Smoking drums took more of our time than smoking weed did of a subsequent generation. It was done within a fume cabinet using a Bunsen burner to which was attached a device that produced an evil and oily black plume. The paper covered drum was then placed in the smoke until it was fully blackened. The drum was then attached to a contraption that rotated it. A metal arm moved with every twitch of the frog’s muscle and traced a white line on the blackened paper. The paper was then removed and dunked in varnish to make the tracing permanent.

In our second year we moved from the old Victorian buildings into spankingly modern medical school. We hurried to see the new Physiology lab. Would there be new equipment, perhaps to do experiments with DNA? Of course not. What we saw were row upon row of new fume cabinets, each containing brand new, brass Bunsens to smoke a new generation of drums.

I pass over what we were supposed to do to rats and rabbits but it left me with a distaste for animal experiments. I recognize their necessity and in fact late in my career I became a Council member of the Research Defence Society and made a TV film defending animal experiments. But this was after the RDS had instituted its policy of reducing the number of animal experiments, replacing them with other techniques where possible and refining the way that animals are kept and experimented on so that suffering is kept to a minimum.

I had little personal experience of experimenting on animals myself – I kept a couple of goats and six rabbits that I vaccinated with a harmless vaccine that I had received myself and took blood samples from them (in a way that I had myself been bled). The animals were kept in luxurious conditions that were better than how some of my patients lived. From the days in the 1960s when animal experiments were often unnecessary and crudely performed, there has been a great improvement in animal husbandry and much better designed and humane experiments. Some people won’t listen. I found a great reluctance among scientists to be interviewed for my film, for fear of animal liberation terrorists, and I was advised by then police always to look under my car for bombs before setting out for work in the morning.

Biochemistry was a small part of physiology. We were lectured on the Kreb’s cycle and the glycolytic pathway and had practicals on measuring glucose and urea by simple chemical tests. The macro-equipment that we used made the equipment we had in school look like something out of the Space Age. We were taught by a plump, balding and bespectacled old gentleman and a lady who flirted with the young men. She was certainly over-40, but dressed to look 16. She wore bright red lipstick which always migrated to her teeth and consequently she was known as Dracula’s daughter.

Nobody liked physiology and we took to turning up at five past nine in the morning. The Lecture Theatre’s doors were locked ant nine.

Dave, my dissecting partner, wrote a song for the Christmas Smoker about Anatomy and Physiology. I can’t remember all the words but it was to the tune of Camp Granada (which some of my older readers may remember)

It began:

Hello Mother, Hello Father,
Here I am at my cadaver.

A later verse went something like this:

All around us dogs are dying
Frogs and cats we’re crucifying
It’s not science makes us willing
The truth is that we quite enjoy the killing

The chorus was something like this:

We have sins
Beer, gin and women,
The placing of bets.
Can’t you see
Though medicine is our bent
We… want…to…stay…stu…dents.

As I said, Dave left medicine after the fifth term. I often wonder what became of him. I’ve never seen his name in the credits of TV comedy shows.


Anonymous said...

Dracula's daughter! How funny. That reminds me of my social studies teacher in junior high school, probably the eight grade. Her name was Mrs. Nichols. We could never figure out how she got lipstick on her teeth. We figured she grimaced when looking in the mirror and just colored everything she saw.

She took an intense dislike to me (perhaps hearing the rumor about her teeth). I suffered for an entire year. She was ancient (probably about 60) so she'd be well over 100 now.

She used to make the same joke over and over again. She had a daughter named Penny. She nicknamed her six cents.

Peter Lewin said...

I enjoyed reading your post about your time in the garden and the birds and the bees.

Lots of people have you in their thoughts and all you have to do is keep plugging away.