Launching my first Post is intimidating. Like how I imagine I would feel yelling stories from the pulpit of York Minster, that architectural marvel, after all the visitors have left for the day except someone who is listening behind a column in the darkness.What to write? How to write it? Who will read it? Am I only talking to myself?
At the very least this blog can serve me as a diary of subjects I care about, and a few I know something about. New Year’s Day is a good time for launching as we look backwards and forwards. I start with a back story because it is fresh in my mind after returning from a conference in Cambridge, England, where we celebrated the career of my mentor, (Sir) Robert Edwards, who won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physiology & Medicine. The following is adapted from a tribute I wrote for Reproductive Biomedicine Online in 2011.
An Uncommon Don
When I first met Bob Edwards in a Cambridge pub, I was too green to realize most dons interviewed students in their laboratory or a cloistered college chamber, but I felt grateful for the informal, not to say congenial, environment as it eased my nerves. That encounter in 1970 gave me an inkling of the man I’d work with for five years.
Our lab was perched on the top of the Physiological Laboratory building from where we would crane our necks like young storks to peer down the stairwell at other faculty –
though never so far as the basement where the real big-wigs worked. With few exceptions, the department steadily ignored us, or perhaps simply regarded us with a measure of disdain. We were not isolated from scientists or doctors in the fields of reproduction and embryology around the world though, nor from unannounced journalists who regularly trooped in to see the chief object of their curiosity, but Bob was as often as not two hundred miles away in the north of England working with Patrick Steptoe and Jean Purdy. He rarely discussed the in vitro fertilization (IVF) program with us (not at least until after Louise Brown was born), preventing us from being serious cheerleaders. Perhaps he was protecting us from controversy at tender stages of our careers, and I still wonder if he suspected that some of us harbored doubts whether IVF would ever work in humans –after all, we knew how difficult it was in animals. Nevertheless, there were moments of blushing pride, as when Jean showed us the marvel of a live human blastocyst.
Bob’s policy of “sink or swim” seems harsh today, although it was then commonplace – and so utterly amateurish compared to graduate schools in America. Nevertheless, this policy stood us in good stead, granting enormous freedom for research and from cares about laboratory budgets. My own project started fitfully, being too shy to admit that I could hardly understand his Yorkshire accent. He often found our blunders amusing, like mistaking sterilizing equipment for the oven to heat our sausage rolls. If hesitant to give unsolicited advice, whenever it was requested he served it up freely, often on an unorthodox plate –and once digested and followed, things usually turned out for the best. Maybe it is only with hindsight that the lab in those days seems like a scientific Camelot, with none of the hubris attendant on a scientific revolution. But there never was a keener spirit of cooperation than I encountered there, kindled by respect and even affection for our colleagues. We had few worries aside from accumulating data for our Ph.D. dissertations, and abundant humor leavened the hard work. Bob, along with Bunny Austin, the lab chairman, created a unique research team, and that most of the graduates stayed in the field, with a good many achieving distinction, is testament to their wisdom. Despite enduring unimaginable pressures, Bob was always cheerful and positive, recharging his own batteries on family vacations in the Yorkshire Dales, and later working on his own mini-farm.
My last sight of him before leaving Cambridge was his waving at me from a pickup truck loaded with bales of hay while other dons, clutching folios under their umbrellas, leaned into the rain hurrying home or for a glass of madeira in the senior common room. It’s a fitting image, for Bob celebrated the road not often taken, and I like to think in his case that made all the difference.