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.

23 thoughts on “The Queen and I: a Paradox

  1. Dear Joe,

    A very interesting blog and many of us surely appreciate the paradox you describe. Here in Australia we have enjoyed scenes from the British celebration of the Queen’s long reign. A paradox here too- although most Australians think highly of the Queen, the election of a new government here has brought the conversation on an Australian Republic back!
    Love to you and Rohan!

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  2. Thanks for this charming piece, Joe; you illustrate the dilemma beautifully. I’m also fond of the example in ‘Memoirs of a Revolutionist’ by Prince Peter Kropotkin – a radical, republican, gentleman and explorer, also a distinguished scientist and writer. He described his feelings as guest of honour at a dinner at the Royal Geographic Society of London. At the end of dinner, the Chairman rose to propose a loyal toast to HM The King (Edward VII). “Everybody rose, and I alone remained seated. It was a painful moment. And I was thunderstruck when immediately afterward the same chairman cried ‘Long live Prince Kropotkin!’ and everybody, without exception, rose… “

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  3. Dear Joe,

    Thank you for another very interesting article. The first word that came to my mind when I read it is “leadership”. Some are born with it, others learn the skill. By leadership I mean the ability to inspire others to follow you.. Throughout history a few kings and queens had it (not all of them were despotic or used coercive measures to rule their people). Queen Elizabeth II seems to be one of them, regardless of her royal background.

    Bien amicalement,

    Thierry

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    1. Dear Thierry, Thank you for you commentary. I was interested to hear your take on the Queen and leadership which, I have to say, does not sit well with me. I look forward to a discussion when we meet in October. Yours, Joe

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      1. Dear Joe,

        Somehow, I knew my story would not sit well well with you! I look forward to discussing it with you in October!

        Warmest wishes,

        Thierry

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  4. Another interesting and very readable piece. Loved it.
    Isn’t it the case that the queen signs very little, so will be worth a good deal of money? Perhaps you could auction it, and live the life of Riley on the proceeds. Decision then made about a life of privilege!
    (Joke only.)

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    1. Dear Rissole, Thank you for your comments. About the Queen’s signature – 1) When I wrote to her asking her to sign the photos I was told that shouldn’t bother – she never signs. The photos of me and her 22 years apart seemed so odd I thought she might see an amusing side and one worthy of a signature. And she did. 2) What one can’t see in the illustration is that the ink used when the Queen signed was sprinkled with gold-coloured reflecting material. How’s that for an anti-forgery device! Yours, Joe

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    1. Dear John the Cheese, Thank you for your comment. The odd thing about the French is that hours of television time in France was devoted to the anniversary celebrations. France, like me, lives a paradox, but at least the cheese is good here. Yours, Joe

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  5. As always I so enjoyed this bog. She is a special lady but I understand your reservations about some of the family. I was interested in the sculpture of the hands so googled it – can’t help but wonder which one your hand is. What a beautiful thing. Thank you for bringing my attention to it. I do hope you and Rohan are enjoying your time in France although you are sorely missed in the avenue. Kaye

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    1. Dear Kaye, Thank you for your comments. If you want to see the original sculpture it hangs in the entrance to the Medical School in Tooting. If you would like to see a bronze copy, come round for tea – one is mounted on a wall in our garden. Love, Joe

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  6. I enjoyed reading your blog Joe, the Queen (from personal experience) has a way of engaging and making you feel like she is genuinely interested in what you have to say… a true skill and patience beyond measure.
    I have seen the photographs you have shared and I really like the way you have your hands in the pictures, and to know they have been immortalised in a sculpture is wonderful!

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  7. Dear Joe,
    A fascinating memoir and I understand the paradox.
    On a lighter note, I wondered if the message – “The queen has beaten the drug” – remained unaltered after passing through the labyrinth of courtiers ‘whispers’.

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    1. Dear Alan, Thank you For your comment. I could not hear exactly what was said down the line. Proposals welcome. As a starter, what about ‘The Queen has eaten a dog’? Yours, Joe

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  8. Dear Joe. The events and the photos have a nice sort of symmetry. I enjoyed reading the stories around the meetings (and I like the thought of the Chinese whisper in one of the comments). I think the paradox is familiar to a lot of people here.

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    1. Dear Andrea, I am glad you like the blog. I am sure you are right, many will be familiar with the paradox. Love, Joe PS Are you going to suggest a possible last Chinese whisper?

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    1. Dear Andrea, Thanks for your suggested Chinese whisper. I am not sure that courtiers would dare to even think along the lines of “The queen needs to go to the bog”.
      Any further offers? Joe

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