All posts by Michael Clarke

Fighting Ebola In Sierra Leone — Dr Charles Heatley — 14th September 2015.

Dr Charles HeatleyOur Speaker this week was a local GP who shared his exper­i­ence of the Ebola crisis which was dom­in­at­ing the head­lines only a year ago.

Dr Charles Heatley has prac­ticed Medicine for 22 years.  He received his ini­tial med­ical train­ing at Glasgow University, includ­ing a year of study­ing trop­ical medi­cine.  It was this back­ground know­ledge and interest gained by later elect­ives to East Africa that promp­ted him to volun­teer when the Government appealed for med­ical staff to go to Sierra Leone in November 2014.

Ebola is a virus dis­covered in 1976 and named after a trib­u­tary of the River Congo.  The three West  African coun­tries mostly effected by the 2014 out­break were Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.  By November of that year around 27,000 cases and 11,000 deaths had been estim­ated by the World Health Organisation. Thanks largely to the efforts made by people in our story, the out­break has been brought under con­trol.

This viral dis­ease attacks vic­tims’ internal organs. Symptoms, which are ini­tially sim­ilar to Malaria, start up to three weeks from con­tact.  These include muscle pain and head­aches which typ­ic­ally develop into a rash, then vomit­ing and diarrhoea.  There may be internal and external bleed­ing.  The virus spreads quickly through con­tact with the blood or bodily liquids of an effected person or animal –entry via the eye mem­branes is common. There is no cure but rapid rehyd­ra­tion can help many vic­tims to sur­vive.

Charles Heatley explained that West Africa is prone to such out­breaks due to its extreme poverty  low stand­ard of living and the still largely rural pop­u­la­tion which is 40% illit­er­ate. In Sierra Leone there were only 60 Doctors to serve a pop­u­la­tion of 6 mil­lion. With a low pro­tein diet it is still common for people to raid the jungle in search of meat.  The liking for fruit bats, apes and other game could be a factor as some spe­cies are known car­ri­ers of the virus.

The danger to med­ical staff is obvi­ous and our speaker out­lined his own train­ing by the MOD/Army Medical Corps in York.  After ini­tial suit­ab­il­ity tests, Charles under­took an intens­ive nine day course in York.  This included train­ing in a sim­u­lated Ebola Treatment Centre (ETC) ran­ging from dress­ing into and undress­ing from the com­plic­ated plastic pro­tect­ive kit, to the use of chlor­ine in the water supply, san­it­a­tion, rehyd­ra­tion tech­niques, drug applic­a­tions, dis­charge pro­ced­ures to hand­ling the cul­tural expect­a­tions of staff and patients.

It was soon time to put all this into prac­tice.  Charles flew to Freetown in early November for his second­ment.  After ini­tial induc­tion he spent five weeks at the Kerrytown ETC. Sparing us much of the details,  He described life in the heat of a pro­tect­ive suit where the body can lose 1.5 litres per hour, the dif­fi­culties of phys­ical and mental exhaus­tion and the inev­it­ab­il­ity of a high patient death rate.

Despite the trauma of all this, his story had a pos­it­ive side which gave encour­age­ment when facing sim­ilar out­breaks in the future. In par­tic­u­lar our speaker was impressed by:

  •  The gen­eral response of our UK Government, the MOD and Army.  Although this might have been cri­ti­cised by some as being ‘too little, too late’ the pro­fes­sion­al­ism, tech­niques and qual­ity of the Army train­ing staff were out­stand­ing.
  • The supply and logist­ical arrange­ments and the way per­son­nel over­came dif­fi­culties on the ground.
  • Above all, the gen­eral will­ing­ness and com­mit­ment of all involved to make a dif­fer­ence in a dif­fi­cult situ­ation. In par­tic­u­lar, the coordin­a­tion and cooper­a­tion with of teams from such diverse counties as Cuba, Norway, Italy and Spain.  However, with the excep­tion of Medicines Sans Frontieres and Save the Children, cooper­a­tion and coordin­a­tion by the Non- Government Organisations (NGOs) could have been better.


As one member summed it up “Our speaker has given us a fas­cin­at­ing insight into how, even in the most dif­fi­cult of cir­cum­stances, horror can be turned into hope”

The Mayerling Mystery — Michael Rose 15th — June 2015.

If you like mys­tery stor­ies –dark nights, isol­ated houses, dodgy characters- and  having your ima­gin­a­tion tickled, this story had the lot. One of our mem­bers, Michael Rose, kept us spell­bound as he out­lined the plot set in 1889 in a time and place of which we knew little.

On the 30th of January that fate­ful year the mutil­ated bodies of Crown Prince Rudolf, the 30 year old heir to the throne of the Austria-Hungarian Empire and Baroness Maria Vetsera, his sev­en­teen old mis­tress, were dis­covered in a ground floor bed­room in the Royal Hunting Lodge at Mayerling in a remote wooded area south west of Vienna.  Both had met with viol­ent deaths. It was no wonder the Imperial family tried to draw a veil over the affair.

The manner in which the couple died, and the sur­round­ing intrigue, has res­ul­ted in one of the great unsolved mys­ter­ies of his­tory having become the sub­ject of over twenty movies, a ballet, a musical  -includ­ing a Japanese version- and count­less art­icles and books in a dozen lan­guages. And the list still grows!

There have been many attempts –legal, forensic, and dra­matic to ‘solve’ what has become known as the Mayerling Mystery.  Michael sug­ges­ted the prot­ag­on­ists fell into two main groups: -did the not so happy couple die in a sui­cide pact, motiv­ated by the fear that they would be forced to part?  Or was it a planned murder, driven by the work of darker forces? Our Lawyer speaker invited us to wit­ness this debate which, typ­ical of such stor­ies, raised more ques­tions than sat­is­fact­ory answers.

Like a Jury, we were asked to con­sider the evid­ence and the con­tex­tual back­ground. Was Rudolf killed because he was plot­ting the over­throw of his father, Emperor Franz-Joseph?  Apparently they did not get on, the elder favour­ing to con­tinue inde­pend­ence from, and the younger, closer rela­tions with the ascend­ing Germany.  What could have been revealed in the black box full of encryp­ted papers?  Was Johann Loschek, the Prince’s loyal valet and the first to find the bodies at 06.55 pre­cisely, telling the truth?  Was Marie Larisch, the Prince’s all-seeing and all hear­ing cousin and con­fid­ante, a reli­able source for all the inform­a­tion she dis­closes?  Why have all the police files dis­ap­peared?  What role, if any, did Dr Karl Graves, a sup­posed Master Spy, have in influ­en­cing events? Did a carpenter’s son have the real solu­tion? And why, after WW2 were the Russians so inter­ested?  As for the journ­al­ists, they were never to let the facts-if known- spoil a good story!

What we do know is that Rudolf’s life, like many Hapsburgs, was influ­enced by people of doubt­ful wisdom and motiv­a­tion.  The family had a his­tory of mental ill­ness and obses­sions.  It was clear from his Army ser­vice the Prince was unre­li­able and prone to extreme mood swings.  Leaving the Army at his father’s insist­ence his  son had noth­ing worth­while to do.  Rudolf became a ser­i­ous woman­iser –a trait noted when he vis­ited Queen Victoria at Windsor when Edward found he had a com­pet­itor!  Rudolf’s taste in women ranged from street pros­ti­tutes to wives of aris­to­crats, one of whom had chil­dren by four men.  Such liais­ons rarely lasted long and were sub­ject to rapid turnover but gen­er­ously rewarded- the wages of sin might amount to a town or coun­try house! His rela­tion­ship with Maria Vetsara had lasted around 12 months.  Her time was more than up. Unable to think of another way of dis­en­gage­ment could Rudolf have killed her and then com­mit­ted sui­cide?

The story was not end with those gory deaths in 1889. In 1928 Loschek, the valet, changed his story admit­ting he had heard shots at 06.55 fol­low­ing a fierce argu­ment between Rudolf and Maria.  In 1949 Maria’s (who had been denied a Catholic funeral and burial while Rudolf went to the Royal Mausoleum) remains turned up 150 miles away in Linz. She was rebur­ied in a marked grave but not allowed to rest ,  her remains being forensic­ally examined –all inconclusively- no less than three times (the latest in 1991).

What is clear is that the story will con­tinue to run if not in fact, cer­tainly in the ima­gin­a­tion.  Like the many books and films it inspired, the mys­tery behind this drama will con­tinue to niggle the curi­ous seek­ing the truth.

Thank you, Michael, for such an enter­tain­ing morn­ing!


What It’s Like To Be A Bird — Professor Tim Birkhead – 11th November 2013.

Hearty con­grat­u­la­tions to our speaker find­ers for allow­ing Stumperlowe Probus to enjoy what was cer­tainly a lec­ture of out­stand­ing merit.  Professor Birkhead’s orni­tho­lo­gical know­ledge and aptitude for trans­mit­ting fas­cin­at­ing facts to his audi­ence were imme­di­ately appar­ent. One could, at once, appre­ci­ate why he has been able to write over twenty best-selling books on the sub­ject of bird­life. He dis­played, with tre­mend­ous aplomb, an enthu­si­asm for his sub­ject and a rarely-seen abil­ity to effort­lessly enter­tain us with his seem­ingly infin­ite grasp of what makes birds tick.

 The theme of Tim’s dis­course was to dis­play how birds differ from humans in their habits and life­styles. Starting on a remote island in the Irish Sea, we learned of the abil­ity of the female Guillemot to recog­nise her return­ing part­ner from a dis­tance of 700 m and sur­roun­ded by count­less other, to us, identical birds – even when close up, we couldn’t tell one from the other.

 Next, we were told of the Blue Tit’s aptitude to see in the ultra­vi­olet spec­trum and, by so doing, to hunt out poten­tial insect food. Owls and other pred­at­ory spe­cies have phe­nom­enal aud­it­ory powers to fur­ther their stalk­ing suc­cess. Kiwis have poor vision, but good hear­ing and a very great sense of smell, which enables them to locate and  unearth buried food without any pre­lim­in­ary prob­ing.

 Professor Birkhead then showed us how ducks are able to taste and touch by means of minute recept­ors behind the edge of their beaks, which they use to judge what to eat. Flamingos in South West Africa can sense when the rains have arrived in Etosha Pan, about 200 miles away and will migrate  there , but only fol­low­ing a spe­cific amount of rain­fall. Some Vultures hunt by sight when flying over open ter­rain, but others use their sense of smell to scav­enge  whilst hov­er­ing over dense forests.

 At the end of all this won­der­ful enlight­en­ment, we were cer­tain that the term, “Bird Brain” was any­thing but a cor­rect descrip­tion of a human dunce! In many ways birds can show humans a thing or two, and thou­sands of years will pass before we evolve to their state of ingenu­ity!

 Professor Tim Birkhead was named as UK Bioteacher of the Year by the UK Society of Biology , in honor of his three dec­ades of inspir­a­tional teach­ing, matched by a long­stand­ing  pas­sion for research out in the field.

 There is a museum at the University of Sheffield  run by Tim Birkhead called the Alfred Denny Museum in the Dept. of Animal & Plant  Sciences. It’s about the amaz­ing world of nature and it is open to the public on the first Saturday of every month from 9.30 to 1pm. Places can be booked via or 222 9308 during office hours.”