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Doing an additional BSc year


What we learnt at medical school
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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My colleagues were just a bunch of guys wanting to be doctors. In fact, during my second year anatomy… in those days we actually spent a whole year doing human dissection. There's none of this present style where you look it up in a book or a database; we actually dissected, and we actually had to know everything in the human body, because that is the way you did anatomy in the old days. There's a very remarkable professor of anatomy there, called Raymond Dart, who I'll come back to again. And… and also… so, now at the time this was an English language university – the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg – there were no Afrikaans speaking universities where people could do medicine or dentistry at that time, and so there were a lot of Afrikaaners came to this… came to do medicine here. And because of the nature of South African politics at the time, people were very careful as to who they put at a… at a dissection table. There were six of us, three on each side of the body when we changed places at this… and so I was assigned to a table with five Afrikaaners, because of my name; they had thought from my name I must be an Afrikaaner. One of the people I did keep up with, he later became a professor of dentistry in South Africa, a man called Dreyer. However, there I was, and they refused to speak English, so I learnt Afrikaans. I became fully bilingual. In fact, it stood me in great stead, because I could always get a booking on a railway train just by asking for it in Afrikaans. I became fully bilingual because we just spoke Afrikaans. Of course, I could speak quite a bit of it because I had played at school with Afrikaans… Afrikaaners and so on, but here I became fully bilingual. And in fact, I do have an accent which is still… and in my English accent, is still rather Afrikaans accent – not the usual kind of Jo'burg accent. So I had… I learnt anatomy, and I'd been to lectures during my course on histology because we had to do the whole of histology. And there was a remarkable man there called Joe Gillman who really believed in science and so on, and so I found this field of being able to look down a microscope, and actually see cells, completely fascinating. Now, when I think back of what we had to do in 40 weeks… because medical students worked hard. We had 40 weeks; it was eight o'clock… 8.00am to 5.00pm every day, many laboratory sessions. We had to learn anthropology, we had to learn palaeontology, a little bit of it, we had to learn the whole of histology, neurology, human embryology and be willing to answer questions on it, plus the whole of physiology. And all to be accomplished within one year.

South African Sydney Brenner (1927-2019) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. His joint discovery of messenger RNA, and, in more recent years, his development of gene cloning, sequencing and manipulation techniques along with his work for the Human Genome Project have led to his standing as a pioneer in the field of genetics and molecular biology.

Listeners: Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London. His research interests are in the mechanisms involved in the development of the embryo. He was originally trained as a civil engineer in South Africa but changed to research in cell biology at King's College, London in 1955. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1980 and awarded the CBE in 1990. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999. He has presented science on both radio and TV and for five years was Chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science.



Listen to Lewis Wolpert at Web of Stories



Tags: University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, Raymond Dart

Duration: 4 minutes, 14 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 24 January 2008