Category Archives: Medicine

Howard and Mitchell Essay Competition – prizewinners’ presentations

Cordelia Griffith (Howard Essay winner) and Katie Marshall (Mitchell) gave excellent presentations on their essays to a packed library, and dealt with some probing questions with cool skill. Cordelia spoke on “Does Dicey’s conception of the “rule of law” apply in a dictatorship?”, calmly and lucidly demonstrating how the Nazis, in their attempts to ensure that everything they did was technically ‘legal’, nevertheless broke some of Dicey’s rules about how a decent legal system would operate. Katie (“How close is a cure for Parkinson’s Disease?”) explained clearly and with passion some complex science, and focused on how stem cell research might ‘in a generation’ at least bring about clinical trials of the long-awaited cure to this debilitating illness.
The presentations were introduced by representatives of the judging panels, Graham Dixon and David Gower, who stressed the range and quality of this year’s entries, and the importance of letting one’s academic interests develop in ways not overly restricted by thoughts of ‘career’: the career will follow the interests.
Later the annual dinner was held, where we were addressed by Jessica Beagley (OC and former Mitchell winner). She reinforced the point made by the judges, explaining how her career had (already) taken many surprising twists and turns, from scientific research to political lobbying, yet with the common thread of her interest in physiology. It was a perfect way to end the evening.


Daisy Thurkettle: “Plant, animal and mineral: aphrodisiacs in Ancient Greece”

The Ancient Greeks and Romans placed a huge amount of importance on their sexual being, and had a keen interest in the biological and psychological mechanisms behind lust and carnal desire. Daisy Thurkettle’s talk at the Williams Project on provided a fascinating insight into the various botanical and pharmaceutical methods that the ancients used to synthesise lust and cure impotence (or perhaps less eloquently, ‘get in the mood’). The talk began on the use of essential oils in swathes in royal palaces, such as Cleopatra (who allegedly bathed in milk and rose), but the audience was quickly surprised to learn that love potions and cures for impotence were not only used by the femmes-fatales and powerful goddesses of myth, but by actual Greek people.
These cures included a mass of vegetables and plants which were, perhaps obviously, considered to have genitally-themed aesthetics (leeks, carrots and terebinth tree, anyone?). However, what really gripped the audience were the variously disgusting, poisonous and cannibalistic ingredients; these included dried human marrow, powdered silver beetle, wolfsbane, skink lizard and the famed hippomane – a piece of membrane found on the head of a newborn foal, which was mixed with milk to create the potion Dido made for Aeneas. Needless to say, any combination of some of these ingredients probably caused more death than arousal.
Miss Thurkettle called on a wide range of texts – fragments by various ‘unknown’ ancient authors, texts by Apuleius (including the famous Golden Ass), Hippocrates, and even the Bible. The overarching message of the talk was that the ancients were actually scientifically wise beyond their time in the discovery of some biologically effective aphrodisiacs, but were also developed psychologically (perhaps unintentionally) in their use of the placebo effect.

Rhea Gupta

Helen Dixon: “The NHS – present and future”

The first Williams Project of 2014 was presented by Mrs Helen Dixon, a senior civil servant from the Department of Health. She spoke to both branches of the WP, focusing on the changes in the NHS from its founding principles to the current challenges. The audience, many of whom were aspiring medics, were immediately greeted with the complexity of the organisation when shown a diagram of its interlocking components. After viewing the astounding figures that represented the number of patient episodes and visits per year we heard how the media, the ageing population and the obesity crisis are just some of the problems for the NHS in the future. The audience went on to discover how politicians, while generally adhering to Bevan’s founding principles, pose challenges to the NHS when rapidly introducing new policies to please the electorate, sometimes resulting in longer term strategies not being fully implemented.

Mrs Dixon then explained the changes which were being introduced after the Mid-Staffordshire scandal, including the publishing of staffing levels on wards and better access to complaint pathways. Finally, a problem was presented to us emphasising the difficult job of NHS managers; no one wants services to be cut but resources are finite. In the end, we chose to replace face-to-face GP consultations with telephone versions in order to prevent a ward from closing. Throughout, Mrs Dixon held the audience fully engaged and shed much light on the service we all rely on yet know very little about.

Katie Marshall

Dr Tony Pruss: ‘Remembrances of things past: life as a police coroner’

Old Chigwellian and School Governor Dr Tony Pruss gave two talks, each focusing on two aspects of his life. The first aspect was his time as a boy at Chigwell in the 1950s and 1960s, a time of young boarders, corporal punishment, cold showers and some quite extreme masters and praefects. Tony’s stories of scrapes and escapes, especially the Grand Boycott of the CCF Parade, were very funny, and rather enlightening to the students of today. Let’s hope they don’t get any ideas.

The second part of both talks was about Tony’s career as a GP and Police Surgeon. This time more amazing horror stories, but these were set in a grown-up world: being “GP” to drunks and drug addicts, and visiting the sites of accidental deaths, murders and suicides; he had seen it all.

I don’t remember a more intense listening at a Williams Project meeting: Tony had experienced a life that was close enough to us in location and time, but different in so many ways. He had direct experience of life’s underbelly, and we all realised that here was that rare thing: someone talking to the young and telling the truth.

Alan Dronsfield: two talks on the history of medicine

An old friend of the Williams Project, Professor Alan Dronsfield from the University of Derby, gave us two separate talks on medical history. The first, ‘To Sleep, Perchance to Dream – the early chemical history of anaesthesia’, set out the nightmare world of surgery before anaesthetics, and carefully took us through the, er, painfully slow development of methods of pain-relief, from nitrous oxide and opium to chloroform.

The second, ‘Marie Curie, the discovery of radium and its early use in medical therapy’, outlined the discovery of radiation, and the lives and research of Poland-born Marie Curie and her husband Pierre, and then explained the medical uses to which radium has been put, from the Finsen Lamp, used to clear skin lesions caused by lupus, to methods of applying radium to tumours deep in the body and the flourishing of radium hospitals across Europe. Alan then, to much wincing and a little giggling, showed us pictures of pseudo-medical products, from condoms to chocolate, claiming to harness the ‘energy’ of radium for general and specific health benefits, all of them spurious, and some of them harmful. Radioactive thermal underwear, drinks coasters and cigarette holders were some of the other highlights.

Throughout Alan, for a long time now Chair of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Historical Group, held his audience fully engaged, and inspired some excellent questions. We hope to see him again.

Tim Cantopher: Depression – the Curse of the Strong

“Anyone who gets major depression shouldn’t be ashamed. It’s a badge of pride only worn by the best people.”

Dr Tim Cantopher spoke to both branches of the Williams Project about depression: about its chemical origins in the reduction of transmitter chemicals in the limbic region of the brain, and possible evolutionary explanations for how it might have once been (and might still be) a beneficial adaptation to shut things down in unsustainable environments (lower primates have a similar “hibernation response” when things get too much). He also showed us how the effects of drugs such as alcohol are precisely reversed when used to excess. He explained how anti-depressants work, and how psychotherapy has moved somewhat from psychoanalysis into areas such as cognitive therapy. But his main point was that the kind of people who might suffer from clinical depression are driven, able, successful types who ‘go the extra mile’ – sometimes a mile or two further than is sustainable.

Jim Bolton: The Medieval World

Professor Jim Bolton of Queen Mary, University of London, spoke to the WP on two topics.

He first ran a session on “The Black Death”, focusing on the huge depopulation this caused, and the reasons which prevented numbers recovering as quickly as they might.

Later he spoke on “How monetarised was the Medieval Economy?”, a challenging and technical talk for our economists.

Peter Walling: Consciousness

Old Chigwellian and Texan anaesthesiologist Peter Walling treated the separate branches of the WP to three challenging, thrilling and fascinating accounts of his research into consciousness. Using animals on his farm, his own family, and patients waking up from anaesthesia, he has established that the number of dimensions of the attractors associated with EEG wave patterns is directly linked to the level of consciousness. In a nutshell, frogs show a similar dimensionality to humans waking up, so are likely to be in some ways conscious; fish are not.

Also, and more philosophically, his research has led him to suggest that our consciousness is a construct made up of perceived slices of a higher-dimensional reality.

Peter’s home-grown research, enthusiasm and clarity were inspirational, and we all hope that a future Einstein of consciousness was somewhere in the audience.

Peter kindly gave the school several copies of his book, so we can read his ideas at leisure.

Peter Walling

The Welfare State

The Williams Project enjoyed a passionate defence of the importance of increased localism in the delivery and targetting of social welfare, from OC Adam Frosh, ENT Consultant at the Lister Hospital in Stevenage. Mr Frosh’s challenges to the welfare state met with general approval.

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