This story revolves around my love of lectures, a feeling that almost certainly started when, for several years, my father took me to the Christmas lectures at London’s Royal Institution. These lectures, which are part of a tradition going back almost 200 years, are mainly for children – my first visit would have been when I was eleven – and sitting for an hour discovering how birds fly or radio waves work, was riveting. In fact, with outstanding lecturers speaking at my level and, when appropriate, illustrating points with demonstrations, it was true theatre. Moreover, its legacy has lasted years.
As a medical student, learning at seminars and tutorials was always difficult; however, listening to a good lecture offered the solution. As an anonymous member of the audience, the information presented entered my mind so much more easily. I even had time for reflection.
Later, when I was a teacher at St George’s Hospital Medical School – now St George’s, University of London – the pleasure of giving lectures stayed with me, while running tutorials or seminars remained a challenge. In all this the design of the lecture theatre played a part. Harking back to my visits to the Royal Institution, the best arrangement was one that allowed me to be close to the audience, as happens if the seats are arranged in a semicircle with the lectern at its centre; even better if the seats are steeply raked (see illustration).
At St George’s, as well as lecturing there was research, administration, training and some clinical work to be done. My subject in all this was clinical pharmacology which meant that I would teach and study how medicines worked and how they could best be used in patients. Over thirty years I built up a Clinical Pharmacology Unit out of which came several of the next generation’s professors, one of whom was Patrick Vallance who I first met when he was 18 and a first-year medical student. We got to know each other better when he worked on a project with me in his third student year. Then, after he qualified, he joined me as my lecturer from 1986 to 1995, doing research, teaching students and learning the ways of academia. On leaving he became a professor himself, then the director of research in a large pharmaceutical company and finally, in March 2018, the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor where now, as ‘Sir Patrick’, he is responsible for helping determine the UK’s response to the Coronavirus crisis. It is nearly twenty five years since Patrick left St George’s, but we have remained close, with catch-up breakfasts around twice a year.
Recently, my love of lectures and my friendship with Patrick coalesced. At the end of last year I received an invitation from St George’s to attend the official opening of a new lecture theatre – the first built there for over forty years. Moreover, it would be Patrick who would be giving the keynote speech and unveiling the commemorative plaque.
At the opening ceremony the auditorium, which, to my delight is gently curved, was packed with students, dignitaries, friends and staff past and present. To my surprise, Emma Baker, the current Professor of Clinical Pharmacology and herself another of my former lecturers, gave one of the support lectures and in it she chose to show on the screen a photo of a younger me while, at the same time pointing me out to the rest of the audience – I was sitting in a back row.
Then it was Patrick’s turn. Assuming that he would be making a short speech, the night before the opening I had phoned him to suggest he might spend a moment extolling the virtues of lectures and lecture theatres.
Nearing the end of his talk, after looking up at me with a smile he turned to the students in the audience saying ‘I would like to give you some words of warning. From my experience you will never get away from the grips of your professors. As I was hurrying home yesterday evening, I saw on my mobile that I had a missed call. It was Joe Collier, my professor of over twenty years ago. I phoned back to discover that he wanted to tell me what I should say this evening when I opened this theatre. I just hope he was not disappointed’. The audience exploded into laughter and, amid the applause the plaque was unveiled.
After the ceremony, I asked Patrick if he minded my phoning him. With a wry smile he replied ‘Not at all. I had worried how I might finish the talk and your advice gave me the perfect ending’. He is good at diplomacy too.
The illustration is of a Christmas lecture at the Royal Institution. It could just be one of the lectures I attended in the mid 1950s.
For help with writing this blog I would like to thank Patrick, Emma, Anna, Stephen, Judy, Rohan and Vivien