Gold in my Garden

Colonial Williamsburg staff in 18th Century garb draw your eye and a fife and drum band may turn your ear, but never on a Saturday morning when a farmer’s market takes over Duke of Gloucester Street. The ancient street is lined with white canvas harboring wooden tables where local produce is on display—fruit, vegetables, eggs, and meat from Peninsula farms; seafood from the Chesapeake Bay; honey from county apiaries; homemade loaves and pies from local ovens. At the center of a vortex of food gathering, a group of Master Gardeners sit like sage Indian chiefs under an awning where they offer advice for people like me who grow their own.

Williamsburg Farmer's Market
Williamsburg Farmer’s Market

Those coming early with swinging baskets will stagger away to the car park under the deadweight of the best meat and vegetables. Late-comers regret their sleep-in when they find only pickings have been left by the early birds, but at least they can enjoy chin-wagging with a stranger and the antics of dogs paraded by owners. A farmer’s market is so much more than buying and selling: it feels cool to be in the throng, and a world apart from joyless tramping around a supermarket. It is a place to stroll and gaze, to pause for the violin outside the Cheese Factory; it is a venue for meeting and making friends in a genteel society. If Thomas Gainsborough could set up his easel in the street, he’d capture a 21st Century version of the gentlefolk in The Mall in St. James’s Park.

Is this the future of food shopping? Are the headquarters of Industrial Foods America Inc. quaking as shop-troops dissatisfied with the victus quo walk the Street in green wellies, baskets raised against agri-business?

Well, not really! Farmers markets and community gardens are growing, but barely 2% of food grown in America is sold locally. Nor are the patrons (“locavores”) a typical cross-section of society. And how could they be when filet mignon sells at $28 and ground bison at $10 per lb? This is not an epicurean revolution, but it is a reaction by consumers who can afford to buy what they believe is more wholesome fare.

It probably is better, depending on how you measure quality, and you have to scratch around like a free range hen to find tidbits of data you can believe in. The food industry, driven by competition and a never-ending reach for higher yields, has transformed farmland and food-processing, and hence what we eat. Food is amazingly cheap, but there is another price—chemical spraying, agricultural run-off, virulent new strains of bacteria, and the obesity epidemic. Despite these concerns, people are becoming more doubtful whether government and nutritionists are effective, or even impartial, watchdogs over our food supplies. Remember their advice to replace butter with margarine, dietary fat with carbs, raw products with nutrient-rich processed products, and their sweet recommendations to enjoy refined sugar and high-fructose corn syrup?

It is a characteristic of most experts that they rarely apologize for blunders, as Michael Pollan points out In Defense of Food, his masterly critique of the food industry. They are also coy about admitting how little we really understand about the relationship between food and health, and a friend who is an authority on vitamins even admitted that it is “kitchen science.” Since Hippocrates advised, Let food be thy medicine, you might expect doctors to be fountains of nutritional knowledge. Don’t believe it. Have you heard platitudes like, “Mr. Brown, you must reduce saturated fat and cholesterol in your diet.” I remember some of my students at the Edinburgh Medical School asking to include more lectures about nutrition in the curriculum, but the faculty continued to serve them gruel, like Oliver Twist. As a physiologist, I ought to know what is best for health, but I simply follow Grandma into the garden.

Food was so much simpler and heartier in Grandma’s day, before it was industrialized and politicized, before drive-in counters and TV dinners, before we were bombarded with food ads and government advice. She enjoyed pulling lettuce and squash in her garden and buying local produce in season from a family-owned store. If it looked fresh, she trusted the rest—after all, who was she to question the quality of God’s bounty?

If dear old Grandma could parachute from her cloud she would be astonished today. Most of the little farms she knew have disappeared, weeds are now scarce in crop fields, fewer animals graze the meadows, stark factory farms and feedlots have sprouted up, raw milk is banned, eggs are sterilized with chlorine, fresh strawberries are available year-round, tomatoes are ripened with industrial ethylene. And if I explained how crops and animals are being genetically engineered, she would call it the devil’s business and ignore protestations that not every technology is bad. Nevertheless, we would agree, and sadly, that beside all those changes a precious culture is vanishing—the family mealtime when both body and spirit were nourished. Repeats of The Waltons are among the last preserves of this ritual.

I wish Grandma could join us on another trip to Polyface farm, which you would call “organic.” It is open for public viewing and the sort of farm that supplies our local market, but it is far away under the shadow of the Allegheny Mountains in the Shenandoah Valley. Rather surprising for a quiet corner of Virginia, the farmer’s voice booms across country. Joel Salatin is an iconoclast rallying troops that loathe the impact of industrialization and government control over local foods and farms. Describing himself as a “libertarian, environmentalist, capitalist, lunatic” would normally discourage me from opening his book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal, but after I had gotten past his rants about politics and the temptation to start up my wood-burning stove, I found the road-map to healthy and enjoyable food quite absorbing, and mostly persuasive. Salatin explains the challenges for small farmers, and doesn’t shrink from saying that we have to pay more for quality. Most memorably, he engaged university chemistry labs to compare his “pastured” meat and eggs with products from a leading company. The healthy differences were so striking that they should provoke a much larger study. Grandma would, of course, just nod sagely. And even if a study showed the nutrient content of, say, supermarket apples was the same as those grown “organically”, she would quip that those in her garden taste so much better.

Virginia vegetables sleep better in raised beds
Virginia vegetables sleep better in raised beds

As lads, my brothers and I were encouraged to help tend the garden. Few teenagers today can understand why it never felt like a duty, and in hindsight the contact with nature stimulated a curiosity that led to a job in the life sciences. But the immediate feelings were pure triumph as we hauled in our own, displaying the best in bowls as art objects that would have inspired the Impressionists. More than sweet and splendor, gardening also delivered life-lessons. Contending with heat, mud, and bugs for a reward that is never guaranteed demands hardiness for facing disappointments. It takes bloody-mindedness to grow carrots in Virginia clay, only to find the whole crop rotting in a storage bin. And after weeks of encouraging the broccoli (in whispers in case a neighbor called my wife), it is heart-breaking to discover grubs had visited them overnight, leaving only skeleton stems … Ahhh!

Broccoli tears
Broccoli tears

But the gardener shouldn’t feel crushed for long; he can do better next season, fortified with cabbage wisdom! And, meantime, there is the euphoria of plucking some victories from the earth—vine tomatoes before an invasion of ground hogs, crisp romaine before slugs slime up stems, and fingerling potatoes like yellow nuggets in my dirty palm. Gardener’s who can grow this gold never need buy at a farmer’s market.

A gold-digger's reward
A gold-digger’s reward

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Dear Jean

Dear Jean

I couldn’t leave my students to say farewell. Our friends told me it was one of those miserable days before the daffodils bloom along the Cambridge College Backs: Scots would call it a “dreich day”. Pronounced correctly, everyone knows exactly what they mean.

So much water passed under the bridge in thirty years. You’d be amazed to see my hair now—but better a silver noggin than a shiny nut.

As summer grows old, I’m feeling sentimental and looking back on salad days again. I never forgot the first time you showed me a human embryo. Alive! Gazing down the microscope I needed your help to see the tiny ball of cells floating in a pink ocean of culture fluid. You hovered behind me, probably worried that a green student might spill the precious mite you had just created by in vitro fertilization. It took five more years of struggling research until your breakthrough with the embryo that became Louise Brown. Now there are millions like her.

Jean and Bob arriving at Gare du Nord, Paris, for a conference
Jean and Bob arriving at Gare du Nord, Paris, for a conference

Did you ever mind standing in Bob Edwards’ shadow? He was generous with compliments, saluting you as the third pioneer of IVF beside Patrick Steptoe and himself, but as the assistant to a famous scientist and a gynecologist (and being female) you didn’t have much visibility with biographers and the press. The longer you are away the deeper the mystery of your part in the program, and now that both men are gone there is no one left to tell the full story.

Why did you quit nursing? Why did you switch to a lab job for which you were hardly qualified? Of course it wasn’t any ordinary job. Bob’s goal was no less than to forge a medical revolution, and Patrick was aiming to help infertile couples that his profession had virtually abandoned because it had nothing to offer them. Your work was accused of being unethical, “playing God,” and was excoriated in the press, by doctors, and from church pulpits. I wondered what your friends said, what your family thought, and how you coped with it all.

All those struggles were quickly forgotten when it all came right, but then you couldn’t foresee the triumph at the end of the tunnel of nearly ten disappointing years of trials, working long hours and often away from home until Louise was born. Besides the immense challenge of nurturing embryos in the dish and the thicket of critics, you had to glue two different personalities together, for if Bob and Patrick had parted nothing would have been achieved.

I guess you seasoned the setbacks and stresses with humor. I remember you used to laugh when we goofed in the lab, and when you struggled to spell the name of the Philadelphia biologist, Beatrice Mintz, you posted attempts on your bulletin board. It’s funny how trivial things get stuck in my memory. Visitors would remark about your “humor station” before Mintzstepping past to Bob’s office for some heavy scientific discussion. Once when I was sitting in his office soon after Louise was born and you were setting up Bourn Hall Clinic I asked him how he managed to publish his huge tome, said to be the bible of reproductive medicine. He nodded towards your desk, which you leant over, cracking a cheeky smile that was so endearing.

I always knew you had a sterner spirit under the sunny exterior. One day during the public hullaballoo about banning the South African national sports teams from international tournaments I saw you in a heated debate with an overseas visitor who was defending apartheid. Afterwards, I realized you felt the same passion for patients depending on you, and Bob had hired you over more qualified assistants because he saw what you were made of.

I wish I had asked if you ever wanted to be famous. Had you stayed you would have been queen of the realm—earning awards, dinners in your honor, and guest lectureships everywhere. I guess you were happy to be spared that kind of attention, preferring the undisturbed backroom where you could counsel patients and care for their embryos. You were content for Bob and Patrick to be the front men. Bob will go down in history as a scientific pioneer. Patrick passed away too soon to share the Nobel Prize and earn a knighthood, but won’t be forgotten. I’m told that quite a few patients from Bourn Hall still wander across the lawn to stand reverently at his graveside outside the chapel. He’s lying just 15 minutes away from you, but no one makes that journey.

Some of our nurses in America inquired about your story a few years ago. They only knew you were first in the field, but that was enough to create the Jean Purdy Visionary Award. I shared everything I knew for their introductory speech for award-winners, but my knowledge was threadbare and I never managed to find your family to fill the gaps. They have vanished. I found an unrelated woman called Jean Purdy in London; she works as a magician, but you were the real thing. The award was a wonderful naming legacy and I’m terribly sorry that it too has disappeared. You would just put your arm over my shoulder to console me, saying it doesn’t really matter.

If I could go back in time I would love to ask how you felt when you started working with human embryos. The first were experimental because you needed to check they were healthy before Patrick dared to give them a chance of making a pregnancy. I heard you had a devout faith, though I didn’t know your church denomination. Did you ever have qualms about making and destroying embryos? For myself, I believe they deserve respect, but could never understand people who wanted to endow full human rights from the moment of fertilization. Moral philosophers and theologians are still arguing the point, although every nation I can think of has either legitimized IVF or turned a blind eye to the practice. Since your time, embryos have been used to create stem cells for regenerative medicine, which Bob dreamt about half-a-century ago and George W. Bush tried to can a dozen years ago. Although it really started in your lab, I doubt you ever imagined that your work might one day help to cure the incurable. If you read nothing else in this post I would want you to know your endeavors weren’t wasted.

Human blastocyst
Human blastocyst

When I asked a friend at the Hall where I could find you she offered to drive me to Grantchester. I hadn’t visited the village since I was a student. Then I used to cycle over from college or punt on the Granta against the stream, feeling I deserved a drink at The Green Man when I arrived. It was mead in those days. Sometimes I joined students enjoying a cream tea under the apple trees in The Orchard, which is still associated with Rupert Brooke. His patriotic war poems fell out of popularity long ago, but his own tragedy still draws me to his romantic verse, even the schmaltz about his Grantchester home.

The church at Grantchester. Thanks to Kay Elder
The church at Grantchester. Thanks to Kay Elder

And laughs the immortal river still

Under the mill, under the mill?

Say, is there Beauty yet to find?

And Certainty? and Quiet kind?

Deep meadows yet, for to forget

The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet

Stands the Church clock at ten to three?

And is there honey still for tea?

The Old Vicarage, Grantchester by Rupert Brooke (1912)

I ask myself why it has taken so long to write to you, and why now? Perhaps Bob’s passing is prompting me (Blog date April 2013). Perhaps news of Louise’s 35th birthday last month nudged me. But I think it is because the book I finished today jogged something in my unconscious. You might have enjoyed the life story of a remarkable but long forgotten New York surgeon.* Had I more data, I might have started your biography next. Stories of people who made a difference but now lounge in obscurity fascinate me so much more than those still celebrated. They resonate with the last lines George Eliot wrote in her tribute to Dorothea, … the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who have lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

When we reached Grantchester churchyard I could imagine the dreich day when you were laid under the grass beside your mother. It’s a rather unkempt, inauspicious corner with nothing to draw the eye of casual visitors who meander between the stones. Had I been asked to order your memorial I would have insisted on a granite carving, Here lies Jean Purdy, the World’s First IVF Nurse and Embryologist, died 1985 aged 39. But your name painted on a gray headstone is being eaten away by rain and wind, the plastic flowers the most cheerful feature of that bleak spot. Rupert Brooke would have walked over from his rooms at the Vicarage to compose an ode.

Jean's grave

*A Surgeon’s Story by Roger Gosden and Pam Walker will be available on Amazon soon. See Jamestowne Bookworks for news.

Next Post: Gold in my Garden