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Chapter 10. Research

I taught nuclear physics, you must know a bit of nuclear physics to understand what’s going on. My laboratory was dealing with radioactive materials so the College said: “You must use a separate building if you're going to use a certain level of radioactivity.”

Now I'd done some research in collaboration with one of the pathologists in St. Mary's hospital. There was a team of us: Damedy the pathologist; a chemist; a hospital biochemist; and me. I was involved in handling experimental animals and Damedy was interested in the kidney failure that sometimes follows acute surgical operations or severe illness where the kidneys just pack up and don’t work -- acute renal failure. The pituitary body, the internal gland at the base of the brain, produces a substance which stimulates the concentration of urine. If you take that away a very watery urine is produced in large volumes, the condition is known as diabetes insipidous, I think. You give this hormone pitresin to stimulate the kidneys to absorb water back again so that you get a smaller amount of more concentrated urine.

Damedy wanted to know where in the kidney this hormone acts, so the chemist fellow made this hormone react with radioactive iodine. That meant that you had a radioactive hormone that you could give to laboratory animals. Then if you took out the kidneys and looked at the structures you would be able to see where the radioactivity was and hence where the hormone was. It seems reasonable to suppose that the site of action of the hormone would be where it accumulated. Using this radioactive iodine-pitresin compound, hopefully, you would be able to photograph your bits of kidney and blackening of the film would show where the radioactive hormone was and we could deduce that was where the hormone was acting. The procedure had several flaws, for one thing the radioactive iodine produces gamma radiation which is quite penetrating so the radiation gave a rather cloudy effect instead of giving a nice blackening in one spot. Still, it was the only thing available at that time.

So the chemist produced pitresin with radioactive iodine and I studied its effect on rats, starting with the non-radioactive variety to see whether it did perform the same way as the radioactive sort.

When it was decided to establish a laboratory for handling radioactive materials there was one person in the College who had experience with handling radio active materials -- me. So we set up this radioisotope unit and that was jolly hard work for a long time. Not only was it hard work persuading people to spend the money, because the electronic instruments involved are very expensive, well they were in those days. They were all valve equipment, in the days before transistors and printed circuits when each thing had to be pretty well made by hand individually. We made some of them quite successfully too. So that was what I did, about late 1960. 

To learn how to do this I went to Sir John Cass College in London for 1 month. I stayed there during the week and came home at weekends. Daphne helped me with the homework. I spent another fortnight, the following summer, at King’s College learning about radiological safety. That course was pretty well a deadloss, I could have run a better one myself, I think. All they'd done was to collect a number of weighty names in the radioisotope safety field and given them a day each, a morning of talks and an afternoon of practical work. The practical work was setting up experiments for any advanced class, they were a bit poor, I could have set up better ones. Anyway that was supposed to equip me with radiochemical knowledge and safety procedures. I just soldiered on in that way.

The first laboratory that we were given -- the council decided that they had to pull it down but it meant we got a better building. But all this added to the hassle. When we were well established in the new building, the children used to enjoy it. They would come in the holidays and while we were servicing the equipment, there were no radioactive materials around, they used to play about. There were several rooms with two doors, they would dash in one door and out the other door, playing hide and seek. Harry, Andrew and Martin had all grown up. It was Gordon, David and Helen. Sarah would be trotting along as best she could.

Then of course it was decided that the technical college as it then was should become a polytechnic and should have much more resources at its disposal. We'd sort of lost our grip on radioactivity. Such a large and expensive piece of apparatus was required to do anything very much that the college was beginning to ask whether it was worth running this laboratory. I agreed with them and said to them: “Might not it be a good idea if I had early retirement?” They equipped one lab in the college building for handling very low levels of radioactivity, which is what Harry was doing, and that seemed to stimulate them to want to do more. I think there was some sort of competition between our head of department and the head of physics. The physics department thought radioactivity ought to be theirs. So the idea of closing the lab down and just having a small lab didn't find favour, so I didn't get my early retirement.

There was a plan then that one could have very profitable retirement if someone who was unemployed took over your job and in fact we found someone and jolly good he was too. I would have thought he would have done extremely well. He hadn't got all that many qualifications but neither had I for that matter. He seemed to be a real good down-to-earth chap. The conditions that they offered him were pretty poor and within a week of being offered the job he'd found a better one, so that plan disappeared. So I didn't retire. I soldiered on. The head of department at that time then died. The new one took a long time to find his feet.

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