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Going to Johns Hopkins and work on haemoglobin


Army service (Part 2)
David Weatherall Scientist
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I’d taken to going on my afternoon off down to the university in Singapore and met a biochemist called Frank Vella who subsequently became Professor of Biochemistry in Saskatoon, but he spent some time in Singapore, he was from Malta, and he’d been, became interested in haemoglobin electrophoresis and he’d been looking at abnormal haemoglobins in the local population, and so we looked at this girl and just found a bit of foetal haemoglobin, not very much, but it was about a year after the first paper came out on starch block electrophoresis and measuring haemoglobin A2 values, and so we thought we’d have a bash at this, to study this child and the family, I mean, I don’t know, you probably passed starches, you may have seen a bit of starch block electrophoresis later, but you’re covered in the bloody stuff, and it was awful actually, but we finally, to cut a long story short, found that the parents of this child both had thalassemia trait, and that the child undoubtedly had thalassemia major. Well, at that time, there’d been one report from thalassemia from Thailand, and otherwise it would, I just thought it was a Mediterranean disease so better tell the world, so I wrote off my first paper, sent it off, published in the BMJ, and it’s great, how you felt, but it’s a great feeling, your first paper, however trivial. And so I was kind of wallowing in glory and waiting for the phone call from Stockholm, and, but the phone call that came was from the Director General of the Army Medical Services for the Far East; come and see me, you see, so I thought, gosh, he’s seen this and he’s, instant promotion, and he had it out on his desk and he’s one of these men with a little kind of, congenital absence of the upper lip, and tiny moustache. Did you write this? Well he had my name stuck on the top you couldn’t deny it, I said- yes. Did you get permission from the war house? I didn’t know what the war house was, but apparently it was the War Office, so I said- no, I didn’t. Do you know you can be court marshalled for publishing material about the British Army without permission from the war house? No, I didn’t, I said. Well, don’t do it again he said, and then he said, and anyway, damn bad form to tell the world our best regiments have got bad genes. So that was my scientific triumph, and I went to, after the first year, they’d sent me up to look after the medical wards in Taiping, which is a little town by the Thai border in north Malaya, and they were rooting out the rest of the Chinese communists who’d kind of slipped over the border, and that was a wonderful experience clinically, because I mean, the lads were coming out of the jungle with malaria, leptospirosis, scrub typhus, and the lot. I tried to go on with the haemoglobin interest up there, of course there was nothing in the lab, and I managed to construct a rather crude apparatus with car batteries so you could study haemoglobin electrophoresis, and of course when I got an abnormal haemoglobin I didn’t know what to do with it, so I posted it to Herman Lehmenn in London and the other thing, we saw an awful lot of unexplained neo-natal jaundice out there, and, that was just the time when G6PD deficiency had been described in the States, but of course, to do an assay for that in a military lab that, you didn’t have any of the reagents, so I rather cheekily wrote around to some of these authors in the States and said, you know, could I have a bag of tris buffer, and they were amazing actually, I think I got, you know, the Methylene blue and everything from, the package came, so I did a lot of assays, and did write a second paper on neo-natal jaundice and G6PD deficiency, by which time the miserable old guy had gone and nobody told me off.

British Scientist Sir David Weatherall (1933-2018) was a world renowned expert on blood diseases, in particular thalassaemias, and used his expertise to help control and prevent these diseases in developing countries. He founded the Institute of Molecular Medicine at Oxford in 1989 and was knighted in 1987.

Listeners: Marcus Pembrey

Marcus Pembrey, now Emeritus, was Professor of Paediatric Genetics at the Institute of Child Health, University College London and consultant clinical geneticist at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children London. He is a visiting Professor at the University of Bristol UK, where he was the Director of Genetics within the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children until 2006. A past president of the European Society of Human Genetics, he is also the founding Chairman of the Progress Educational Trust.

Duration: 4 minutes, 34 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2007

Date story went live: 02 June 2008