August 18, 2014, by Editor

Blog 3: Cometh the 60s

The latest blog created by Professor Malcolm Stevens FRS can be seen below:

The first two years of my B Pharm degree (1957-1959) were a hard slog with an intensive syllabus leaving little time for other activities. Consistent with the painfully slow upward trajectory of my academic career to that point I managed to pass exams, but without much to spare. However, an encouraging performance in pharmaceutical chemistry and pharmacognosy – medicinal plants and their constituents for those that have forgotten – was deemed sufficient to get me onto the B.Pharm. (Hons) stream at the end of second year. That point also marked the departure of those contemporaries who were studying the two-year Pharmaceutical Chemist (Ph.C.) programme; sadly, this included many mates around whom my vestigial social life centred. I did become very adept though at playing brag and poker in the ‘Johson’s Arms’ in Dunkirk over lunch, or in the evenings in the back pantry of the bookies on Willougby St to supplement my paltry grant. On Saturdays I played in goal for a team in the Notts Amateur League which, over the following few years, became almost a pharmacy department team. A special buddy, Gerald Blunden, was a skilful and languid sweeper in the Beckenbauer-esque mould – he won’t mind me saying so – who could coast through a frenetic match without needing to wash afterwards. Gerry and I shared a passion for pharmacognosy and I still relish some of the Latin names for natural products such as Zingiber officinale (ginger), Cinnamomum zeylanicum (cinnamon) and its sneaky adulterant Cinnamomum cassia,and Strychnos nux-vomica the source of the alkaloid strychnine whose total synthesis had been accomplished by RB Woodward and his colleagues in 1954 and which inspired a generation of organic chemists.Gerry eventually moved to share my wonderful lodgings in Lenton when we were Ph.D. students and was to become best man at my wedding. He became a distinguished pharmacy academic at Portsmouth University.

Meeting girls was problematic: the few girls at University in the late 1950s were locked up each night in Florence Boot and Florence Nightingale Halls; if they deigned to ‘entertain’ a male after 6 pm it was the rule that a chaperone had to be present. Most of the females, apart from those doing Pharmacy, who were strictly off-limits, were studying (to me) remote subjects like medieval history, theology, Chaucerian English or sociology: chat-up lines extolling the wonders of the pharmaceutical sciences – and yes we considered ourselves scientists then – buttered no parsnips with the fairer sex. (It is interesting to speculate how today’s pharmacy students cope now that they are more versed in the social sciences and the syllabus prioritizes communication skills.) To compensate for the then unequal balance of the sexes, the Student’s Union used to import girls from local PE colleges and the like to the Saturday night ‘hops’ in the Portland Building. Crikey, doesn’t that word ‘hop’ date one? I recall one lovely, svelte, athletic girl with whom I had a romance lasting a full 5 minutes on the steps of her bus before she disappeared back to Buxton leaving only a cloud of exhaust fumes for me to remember her by. Otherwise one had to take one’s chances with the town girls who could be encountered on Saturday nights in the more disreputable pubs such as ‘The Flying Horse’ in down-town Nottingham – dodgy even then. ‘The Bell’ was, as now, a popular student haunt and the two massive ladies who operated the bar never suffered cocky undergraduate fools gladly. I took one of my grand-daughters there nearly 60 years later: there was a veteran jazz band of my vintage playing and their rendition of ‘When you wish upon a star’ left me entranced, to the amusement of GD and her boy-friend.

All these uncertainties and unfulfilled expectations changed in October 1958 when a very special girl came up to Nottingham to read geography. Did she intentionally follow me to Nottingham I have oft asked myself? I had known Val Deans from Bolton School days when we had common interests in ball-room dancing, but not sport, sadly. It was a love of music which brought us together: I played clarinet in the school orchestra and, being on the back row of the serried ranks of instrumentalists was closest to the perfumed lovelies of the sopranos of the Girls Division standing behind. At University we became an ’item’ as they say nowadays and we still are 56 years later which must be some sort of record for Nottingham; and she still sings like an angel and dances like a dream! Val was a great actress and secured many of the female lead parts in the Dram. Soc. productions of the following few years, such as ‘Antigone’, ‘Teahouse of the August Moon’, ‘The Crucible’ and ‘Taming of the Shrew’.

Whereas town girls preferred to drink expensive martini cocktails or disgusting babychams in funny glasses, going out with Val was no great burden on the pocket as she could make a half of the local Shipstone’s bitter (Shippos) last the whole night; also we were regulars at the Savoy Cinema on Derby Rd for a cheap evening out. More expensive outings included Union Balls at the Sherwood Rooms where famous ‘trad’ bands led by Humphrey Lyttleton, Chris Barber and Acker Bilk performed in all their foot-tapping glory. Summer balls at Florence Boot Hall were dressy occasions as the accompanying photo shows. I recall one special May Ball in the Portland Building (1960?) when, in the early hours, there was a major power outage. Candles appeared miraculously and although the bands downed their instruments, the event carried on in a magical atmosphere. I even took to the piano in one of the lounges – as one does in a crisis – and played some syrupy show numbers in my style which was part Rachmaninov and part Semprini. Actually it was rather less of the Rachmaninov and more of the Semprini. Imagine my surprise when the lights came on to find numerous couples smooching to my tinklings.

Malcolmand val2

 Your blogger and Val Deans (Nottingham University 1958-1962) at Florence Boot Ball, 1960

But back to my Degree: my final year pharmacognosy project involved an analysis of the tropane alkaloids from Datura stramonium, which contained mainly hyoscyamine,and its close relative D. ferox which produced mainly hyoscine. Intriguingly, in their F1 hybrids, hyoscyamine was the dominant tropane and in the F2 generation alkaloid production segregated according to the laws of Mendelian inheritance. It was also possible to generate tetraploid and polyploid plants by soaking seeds in extracts from Colchicum autumnale (Autumn Crocus): these plants grew to large size and produced copious amounts of alkaloids. Many years later, when I became a cancer researcher, I learned that the alkaloid responsible, colchicine, binds to and inhibits tubulin, the protein which orchestrates the segregation of chromosomes in cell division.

I was inspired by the lectures delivered by Prof Partridge on the history of chemotherapy: Paul Ehrlich and his search for ‘The Magic Bullet; Domagk’s discovery of the prodrug prontosil, the prototype of the sulphonamide class of antibacterial agent; Fleming’s penicillin and the heroic chemical efforts centred in Oxford to elucidate its structure. Other milestones included Waksman’s discovery of streptomycin and Frank Rose and his colleagues’ synthesis of the first effective synthetic antimalarial, proguanil in ICI laboratories in WW2; it is still used today in combination with more recent agents. I met Frank Rose on several occasions and he was to be an assessor when I was appointed as Reader at Aston University in 1972. I didn’t know at the time that I was to occupy a small slot in this amazing chemotherapeutic narrative. In pharmaceutical chemistry practicals I honed my skills in organic synthesis in anticipation of a research career in this field and became adept at identifying ‘unknown’ compounds, sometimes employing my senses of smell and taste to augment chemical tests. Not today you don’t!

In the run up to finals I often worked past midnight and my landlord woke me up to resume my studies when he left the house at 6 a.m. Unlike most pharmacy students then (and now) fearful of tackling problem questions I convinced myself that a successful solving of a problem would be rewarded with 20 out of 20 marks, whereas a brilliant essay regurgitating lecture material would be worth only 14 or 15 out of 20 at best. So I made sure that, when faced with choices on exam papers, I eschewed the ‘easy’ questions and tackled only those where I could produce information that had not been covered in lectures. I was really up for it come finals week in June 1960 and these tactics brought their reward of a 1st Class Degree.

Oh the 60s! For a new graduate aged 22 this was to be a glorious decade and with a slate of new universities being created in the mid-60s, several with pharmacy departments, there was no shortage of academic posts for aspiring pharmaceutical scientists. This was the decade of G Plan furniture, Danish Glass, beehive hair-dos, Dusty Springfield and mascara, the Mersey Sound and the greatest pop group in the entire history of the world – the Beetles. (Readers: this list could have gone on for ever and ever!) Harold Wilson launched the ‘White Heat of the Technological Revolution’ at the hustings in 1964 and this propelled the Labour Party back to power after 13 years in the wilderness. Now whatever happened to that revolution you ask? But say what you like about the slippery Wilson, he did win the World Cup in 1966, an achievement unlikely to be matched by any other PM. On the pharmaceutical front Carl Djerassi’s contraceptive pill was launched and Librium and Valium became available for the agitated chattering classes. Orgasms were invented by Cosmopolitan Magazine – a little-known fact that one! Optimism and skirts rose to dizzying heights.


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