December 8, 2014, by Editor

The Engleesh’ll Getya

Here is the fifth blog from our Emeritus Professor, Malcolm Stevens (FRS)

Black-brick Universities   1965 was a great time to be looking for academic jobs in pharmacy. The Robbins Report of 1963 had recommended that 10 Colleges of Advanced Technology (CATs) should be upgraded to universities; five of these institutions had pharmacy schools and were seeking to expand. Another college, Heriot-Watt in Edinburgh, designated as a Central Institution in 1902, was empowered to grant undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, including pharmacy qualifications; the Robbins Report also granted this Institution university status and it received its Royal Charter in 1966. Universities do so love to align themselves with their peers and position themselves in a rigid hierarchy – Oxbridge at the top; then Durham and Bristol (arguably); then the austere big civics and the post-war green field universities, of which Nottingham is an example. Because the Robbins newcomers had historically focussed on technical and engineering qualifications they were collectively belittled as ‘black-brick universities’ (BBUs) by other more elitist centres of higher education, the latter being characterised by having theology, sociology and philosophy departments as if that gave them the intellectual high ground. The upstarts needn’t have worried though because, since the mid-60s, several other tiers of universities have been created right down to the so-called ‘mickey mouse universities’ (MMUs) as fodder to be lampooned in their turn. It all makes for jolly horsey guffawing in senior common rooms, mainly by academics well past their sell-by dates it should be said.

What Watt   I fancied Heriot-Watt (‘The Watt’), much to the dismay of Prof Partridge, my former PhD supervisor, who didn’t rate the Pharmacy Department highly in the research stakes. He was right. The whole Institution had an in-bred, technical college feel to it and many of the senior staff had spent their entire academic careers there; even the corridors smelt of Swarfega marking the passage of generations of rough engineers. The Principal, Hugh Nisbet, a distinguished chemist who made his scientific reputation isolating pyridine derivatives from shale oil and coal tar – exciting stuff – maintained a scrooge-like insistence, allegedly, of patrolling the college switching off all the lights at 17.00h. (Actually with universities current imperative to be perceived as ‘green’ perhaps he could be considered 50 years before his time: Nottingham VC please note.) As I had mustered no savings and the Scottish house transaction process of sealed bidding operated to the benefit of the seller, my wife and I had no option but to buy a bog-standard Wimpey house in a cul-de-sac on a windy, tree-less wasteland on the edge of an ugly mining village in Midlothian. It did have an arresting view of the local byng (Note: Scottish for pit slag heap) which, some said, had been burning since the industrial revolution. A few days after moving in at the start of October 1965 my wife and I were introduced to the geopolitical realities of life north of the border: the neighbour’s kids were misbehaving and refusing to come in for their teas until threatened with the ultimate horror “the Engleesh’ll getya” at which they disappeared screaming into the house glancing fearfully over their shoulders. There were some echoes of this hostility in the 2014 Scottish Referendum. It was a fraught time for a new Lecturer in Medicinal Chemistry in other respects: I was preparing new lectures late at night for presentation the following morning and coping with my wife’s developing serious health issue with her advancing pregnancy, as well as trying to make the house warm and habitable; and money was so short that purchases of essential domestic equipment, like a dust pan and brush, had to wait until payday at the end of the month. Then it started to snow in early November. Our son Ewan was born in dramatic circumstances on 21st Nov 1965. He was named after one of the first pharmacy students I met at The Watt who was called Euan – but I anglicized the name.

Bread by the slice   The Pharmacy Department was located in Edinburgh’s famous Grassmarket behind a series of hostels catering for Scotland’s down-and-outs. Now lined by fashionable shops selling kilts and tweeds, expensive hotels, restaurants and bars with a busy night-life, the Grassmarket is a mecca for tourists. Not so in the mid 1960s when huddled groups of itinerants would take their swig in turn from a communal bottle of cheap ruby wine and the local shops would sell them cigarettes by the one and bread by the slice. Isn’t it humbling, that people with next to nothing will share what little they do have? Most of my new academic colleagues were keen and able golfers and only a persistent haar off the North Sea – a regular occurrence – would deter them from spending the afternoon on one of Edinburgh’s fine courses. If there had been a university assessment for golf they would have walked it to a 5* rating and could have wiped the floor with all other pharmacy departments. The relaxed and friendly, almost Shangri-La-like, atmosphere encouraged me to take up the game as it gave me the only entry to engage in coffee room banter with my new colleagues. In my first competitive match my opponent deviously chose a course with a deep burn meandering across most of the fairways. Armed only with three borrowed irons and a putter I lost six balls on the first six holes and it wasn’t until the seventh that I actually made it to the green with a ball in play. I resolved then that, as I couldn’t afford the cost of golf balls, let alone a set of clubs, on my lecturer’s paltry salary, I was going to concentrate on my research career. Ten years later I took the same decision never to waste valuable research time playing squash. Smart moves Malcolm.

Pharmacy A to Z   The staff common room overlooked Greyfriars Kirkyard where the legendary Skye terrier Bobby attended his master’s grave for 14 years and gullible American tourists still flock to the scene in their thousands. The Department was led by an affable and canny old Scot, Hugh Campbell, who reminded me of Dr Cameron of ‘Dr Findlay’s Casebook’. He was no mean swinger of a spoon on the golf course himself. Notably, he had a quite unique style of teaching pharmacy students: he would start at the beginning of ‘The British Pharmacopoeia’, acacia or whatever, and move progressively through the weighty and boring tome, dwelling on digitalis and ipecacuanha and their constituents no doubt, until he reached zinc sulphate at his final destination, three years later. Now, you scoffers, who can prove that his methods were any less effective than a modern modular approach to teaching a syllabus? The students certainly learned to appreciate the full spectrum of expertise that would be required of them in their careers. And they were such wonderful students, recruited mainly from posh schools in Edinburgh and the local hinterlands of the Borders and Fife. The year I joined the staff two of the students played in the Scottish Rugby Union side. Although my staff colleagues were devoted teachers and respected by the students, sadly, a lack of a research culture was to be their Achilles heel a decade later. Their loss was my opportunity as some of the students sought to embark on the perilous journey towards a PhD and, as I was one of the few staff committed to research, I had the pick of the bunch. My decision to go to Heriot-Watt started to pay off: together with my postgrads, we worked all hours in the lab together, having won a battle to keep the building open after 17.00h. For me, in my late 20s, it was a valuable apprenticeship which stood me in good stead in later years. Too many academic scientists give up their own laboratory work at that age, or before, to build and supervise a large team and spend their time writing grant proposals. I still worked regularly at the bench on my own projects, learning something new every single day, until I was well into my 50s.

Remnants of Empire     As my post-doc work in Nottingham had been funded by the British Empire Cancer Campaign I decided to make contact with their man in Edinburgh. He was a retired military type – well they all were in those days – and bristled with medals and a moustache. He was wearing his medals because he was planning a street collection the following day and had his tactics worked out like Montgomery on the eve of El Alamein. His master thrust was to launch a pincers movement to drive shoppers down Princes St and George St and ambush them at the West End with his infantry and ……..I confess to be guilty of sometimes mixing fantasy and reality but this guy was something else.

I wasn’t successful in obtaining money from the Charity on that occasion but canvassed Allen & Hanburys to get them to fund a PhD studentship – my first ever grant. I had the privilege of meeting the Research Director, David Jack (later Sir David Jack) who became Research Head at Glaxo Laboratories and thence GlaxoSmithKline. Jack, the son of a miner from Fife, qualified as a pharmacist from The Royal Technical College in Glasgow, which later became The University of Strathclyde in 1964. There was a strong rumour that he might have become the Head of the Pharmacy Department at Heriot-Watt on the retirement of Prof. Campbell, but that never transpired. What a difference that would have made to the fortunes of academic pharmacy in Edinburgh. Sir David was particularly associated with the discovery ofthe first β-2 receptor agonist salbutamol (Ventolin) and the H-2 receptor antagonist ranitidine (Zantac), but also several other ‘blockbuster’ drugs were discovered on his watch. I believe that he and I are the only two pharmacists elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society, but I am running out of time to match his eminence.




Posted in Pharmaceutical ResearchStudent Life