DIARY 22 January 1968 Scientific method

Scientific method


Chelsea College in the early 1960s.

At Chelsea College I became a scientist, white coat and all. Doing experiments rather than watching them as we had done in school. As pharmacists we had to know a lot – botany, anatomy, chemistry, biochemistry, pharmacology, neuroscience. Even physics; the science behind making a medicinal tablet is astonishing. Just imagine; each tablet has to have an exact measured dose, bulked up with an inert substance, compressed so that it remains firm, and uncontaminated. All that for an aspirin.

It was odd therefore that one of our first practical sessions was to learn how to make pills in the nineteenth-century manner. A pointless exercise, even for historical reasons. The main requirement for success was sweaty palms. Thank goodness for tablet manufacture.

Dope under the scope 2

Dope under the ‘scope.

Botany meant studying plants under a microscope, not just to identify them but to assess their medicinal worth. Perhaps it was a sign of the times but the sample I had to investigate was marijuana. A very small sample it was; you don’t need much for a microscope slide.

Muscular system

Studying anatomy made me feel like a doctor although learning lists of bones, muscles and so on was never my forte. I did at least learn how all my internal organs fitted together. And I could dream of wierd voyages amongst the Islets of Langerhans, through the Sphincter of Pylorus to the lacunae of Morgagni, passing the Zonule of Zinn.

I found biochemistry fascinating. My pin-up poster was of the Krebs Cycle[1] with its circular process of chemical changes showing how all organisms release stored energy through oxidation of chemicals derived from carbohydrates, fats and proteins. And all done within each cell of the body.

Pharmacology, the study of how substances act on cells, organs or the whole organism, was central to my studies. Such experiments could not always be done in a test tube. Sometimes we had to use living creatures (go to the next paragraphs if you might find the details upsetting). To demonstrate how drugs can act on the body, we would be given live frogs prepared by a technician who had a special skill in scrambling their brains by inserting a needle in the back of their heads. The live but brain-dead creature would then be given shots of nicotine to stimulate its muscles; the poor thing could be made to jump at will.


Titration in action.

As it turned out I had a special skill in quantitative analysis in chemistry. The equipment was relatively simple – burettes, pipettes, conical flasks, very accurate chemical balances. But it needed a steady hand and accurate observation and recording. I could work out the composition of a chemical solution using titration or distillation. Fifty years later I would have no idea what that means. My supervisor suggested that, even in my first year, I should consider doing research or even a PhD.

But I had other diversions.


[1] Krebs won a Nobel prize for it.

DIARY 5 August 1967 Mysteries of the apothecary

774BristolRoadSouth Boots JPEG  harborne-high-street-c1955 JPEGharborne-prince-s-corner-c1965 JPEG

Harborne High Street, Birmingham. Top left. A typical Boots the Chemist shop in 1955 in Northfield. Top right. Harborne High Street in 1955. Boots was to the right, out of picture, if I recall. These are bit early for 1967 but I like the Jowett Javelin car and the Woolworth sign. Bottom. General view of Harborne High Street as it was in the late 1960s. Harborne was always a bit posher, being close to Edgbaston. Now it has a Waitrose where I think Boots was.

Mysteries of the apothecary

I needed a holiday job before going to university to study pharmacy so becoming a dispensing assistant at Boots[1] the Chemist in Harborne[2] was a logical choice. Please note the job title; an ‘assistant’, not just a delivery boy or floor scrubber as I had been before. I got to wear a white coat.

This was more than protective clothing; it demonstrated your place in the jobs hierarchy. If you wore blue overalls, you got your hands dirty, and your overalls were usually dirty as well. The foreman, who told the people in blue overalls what to do, wore a brown coat. He did not usually get his hands dirty so his coat would have been clean. However, if you wore a white coat, you were never going to get your hands dirty. Your immaculate coat proved your superiority.

At school, I had been good at science, especially biology. I was fascinated by the complexity of cells; the structure of DNA[3] was a wonder. I procured a poster which detailed the various processes of the Krebs Cycle[4] like a magic spell that turned chemistry into life. This is what drew me to chemistry and biology. I did not think of myself as a swot (the word for nerd in those days). But I was delighted when I discovered a second-hand book for next to nothing which explained the structures and reactions of ketones and aldehydes[5].

I was still essentially a shop assistant. But at least I did not have to sweep or scrub. A chemist’s shop was not self-service, as most shops are today. I had to learn quickly not to be embarrassed when a woman would ask for tampons, or an older person would ask for suppositories. There was always a way out of a difficulty, for both myself and the customer, by suggesting we call the pharmacist. I was still floored when a man walked in one day and cheerily asked for a dozen Durex without any sign of embarrassment. It was my face that went red.

Fifty years ago, medicines were not supplied in bubble packs or in measured doses. They would arrive in bulk, up to 500 tablets in a drum, or half a gallon of liquid. My job was to decant tonic, syrup or linctus into smaller brown bottles and attach a personalised label. Plastic screw tops lids had just been introduced and some older people were suspicious because they did not have a cork. I had to count the tablets into even smaller bottles, or small white card boxes, add a piece of cotton wool to stop them rattling, and then the label.

We had a simple gadget for counting tablets. A triangular tray which arranged them in rows starting with one at the apex, two in the next row, then three etc. I simply counted the rows which immediately gave me the total number of tablets. I still remember that seven rows equal four weeks’ supply at one a day.

Dispensing pharmaceuticals meant only counting and measuring. Although the shop had a shelf or two of old jars with abbreviated Latin names on them, no-one made up ointments or mixed potions any more. Nevertheless, I am sure that a present-day pharmacist would be bemused by the meagre stock carried by a chemist in the 1960s. Nowadays, there is a vast range of different medications, with pre-packaged doses in similar cartons. Pharmacists today have mechanised revolving shelving to allow them to store and keep track of the ever-multiplying products of the pharmaceutical industry[6].

It was just for a few weeks but it gave me a few pounds to take to London with me. I could also say that I had experienced life as a pharmacist and had earned the right to wear a white coat.

[1] Boots the Chemist is one of the long-established retail business which can now be seen in virtually every high street or shopping mall. John Boot established his herbalist shop in Nottingham in 1849 and since then it has grown into an international brand. In 1967, one of its main rivals on the high street was Timothy White’s & Taylor’s, chemists. In 1968, Boots took over their 662 branches.

[2] Harborne is a suburb near to Selly Oak on the western side of Birmingham. It was close to Birmingham University and Queen Elizabeth Hospital and so attracted academic and medical professionals. I would travel there by taking the Outer Circle route number 11. Despite being close to where I lived I had never, in my memory, been to Harborne before.

[3] The structure of DNA was elucidated in 1953 following work by James Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin. The study of DNA and the processes of the cell cycle such as mitosis and meiosis were part of my ‘A’ level curriculum in the 1960s. I continue to be astonished by genetics, the genome, and the possibilities which were inconceivable fifty years ago.

[4] Sir Hans Krebs (1900 – 1981) was a pioneering biochemist who described how cells produce energy from the breakdown of glucose in a process called the citric acid cycle, often referred to as the Krebs Cycle.

[5] Ketones and aldehydes are organic compounds with similar structures. They can be highly reactive, such as formaldehyde which is used to produce bakelite. Acetone is a ketone which is solvent used for thinning paint. To know the difference at age 18 meant you were a nerd.

[6] Damien Hurst turned a pharmacy shelf into an artwork and even used it as the theme for a restaurant. Mr Boot would not have been amused.


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