Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II certainly deserves congratulations – living for ninety-six years, of which seventy have been as Head of State, is an extraordinary achievement. In its coverage of the celebrations the media told how different people have been touched by her reign. This blog is about two such occasions that affected me: both occurred at my workplace – St George’s Hospital Medical School – and both I hold dear.
In 1980, as well as seeing patients and teaching, I was busy doing research; I was keen to learn more about how drugs, hormones and medicines control the flow of blood through our veins and arteries. For this, my studies were done on healthy volunteers.
At that time, the Medical School had just moved home. For over two hundred years it had been based in central London; now it had a new campus in Tooting in south London and the Queen was invited to officially open its newly-built laboratories, lecture theatres and library. At the last moment plans for her visit had to change – the Palace asked that she should not see anything linked to animal experiments. Knowing of my work, I was asked if I could show her my laboratory and demonstrate an experiment involving a human being!
Designing an experiment for such an occasion was difficult. Ideally, the laboratory atmosphere should be calm and the subject relaxed but, with the Queen looking on, these requirements could never be achieved. I decided to create artificial calm by giving the subject – a medical student – a beta-blocker as part of the study; this medicine would reduce his cardiovascular responses to stress and so slow his heart rate.
With everything prepared, the Queen entered the laboratory and, despite my plans, the subject’s heart raced and his blood pressure rose. I had no option but to abandon the study. That decision made, I explained to the Queen what I had intended to do (see the photo on the left of the illustration), introduced the subject, described the equipment and told her the importance of human experimentation and the need for ethical approval. Then came the sensitive issue of my failure – I explained that, despite the calming drug, her presence had caused his heart rate and blood pressure to rise. Put another way, she was “more powerful than the drug”.
The Queen, who clearly understood the issue, turned to her Lady-in-Waiting and told her “I have beaten the drug”. The Lady-in-Waiting then turned to her own Lady-in-Waiting and said “The Queen has beaten the drug”, and the same message was then passed on down a file of attendants that went out of the door and down the corridor. The scene was straight out of a pantomime.
Demonstration over, the Queen thanked me and set off for the next stage of her visit – but there was more. As she left my failure loomed large – my experiment had not worked and I had very publicly let down the School, the Queen and indeed, myself. I thought about instances in the distant past when, after such a lapse, there would be public hearing and possible retribution. In fact, I was not summoned to apologise and explain, but the incident was not forgotten. In her letter to thank the School, the Queen expressly asked after the well-being of my subject!
Twenty-two years later, in 2002 to be precise, the Queen again visited St George’s, this time to mark the 250th anniversary of teaching medicine. Now, as a senior member of staff, I was involved in planning her visit. At one point she would unveil a sculpture in wood (“Handing on Skills, Ideas and Ideals”) that had been carved to mark the event. The medallion showed a ring of 10, life-sized clasped hands and it was my job to explain the sculpture, to introduce her to the sculptor and then to invite the Queen to do the unveiling (see photo on right of illustration).
Amongst the hands, which included students, teachers and historical St George’s characters (John Hunter and Edward Jenner) one was mine – there because of my long service and because I was the current chair of a senior School committee. In passing, I told the Queen how I had started as a student at St George’s and stayed ever since, from junior doctor to professor “I have never left”. In response she turned to me and, with a mischievous look, said “I know exactly how it feels”. Her repartee was not missed – the audience burst into laughter and applause.
My two moments with the Queen, as Head of State, have been very important. In contrast, embracing the recent anniversary celebrations has been difficult. In the UK the monarchy and the royal family with all their trappings are institutions that I dislike intensely. For me, these powerful bastions of the past ooze privilege, inequality and untold wealth held by just a few. Having a strong republican belief and, at the same time valuing my moments with the Queen, present an obvious paradox – one I have yet to resolve.
The illustration shows two photos mounted side-by-side and signed by Elizabeth R. The one on the left was taken in 1980 with me standing in my lab coat explaining the experiment to the Queen. On the right, it is 2002 and I am standing besuited explaining to the Queen the details of the sculpture by Elona Bennett that had just been unveiled to mark 250 years of teaching at St George’s Hospital Medical School.
For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Neil, Sarah, Marie-Vero, Joshua, Rohan and Vivien.