All posts by Peter Clarke

Born Prematurely — Dr Neil Chapman — 2nd July 2017 

Why an early birth­day goes wrong.’

Dr Neil Chapman, is Group Leader and non-Clinical Lecturer in Reproductive Medicine at Jessops Hospital , Dept. of Oncology & Metabolism. If anyone was in doubt as to the value of Sheffield’s Hospitals, Dr Chapman soon dis­pelled any uncer­tainty.  Fortunately no-one in my family has had to call on the skills and know­ledge at Jessups but some of my acquaint­ances have.   Gratefully so, I might add.

A round figure of some 15,000,000 people around the world are born too soon.  This res­ults in many pos­sible com­plic­a­tions and long-term damage.  Of these, one mil­lion will die as a result.  A major­ity of the deaths will occur in babies born  very pre­ma­turely,  between 28 and 30 weeks gest­a­tion.

Jessops Maternity Wing man­ages 7,000 deliv­er­ies per year.  As yet, doc­tors do not have suf­fi­cient know­ledge to pre­vent them when prob­lems involving pre­ma­ture birth arise.  Surprisingly there are com­par­at­ively few medi­cines to pre­vent pre­ma­ture labour.  Those medi­cines that do exist may be counter pro­duct­ive and can cause prob­lems for mother and child.

The cells in the wall of the womb con­tain nuclei and DNA or gen­omes, which con­trol womb con­trac­tions.  They can be com­pared to a lib­rary of instruc­tions.  Each book rep­res­ents an indi­vidual gene.  The basic genes are described as A,T,C and G which inter­act between them­selves func­tion­ing as an instruc­tion book.  Somehow, during preg­nancy the womb changes from an inflex­ible organ, to a softer pli­able one as labour approaches.  Despite the com­plex reac­tion between A,T,C and G how it works is still not com­pletely under­stood.  The com­par­ison Dr Chapman made to a Land Rover’s ser­vi­cing sched­ule, is a doddle it seems to me, com­pared with our friends A,T,C and G and what they get up to.

I am amazed at the  degree of study and know­ledge the med­ical spe­cial­ists have acquired.  Yet, it appears that there are vast tracts of unknowns out there.

We were reminded that it was only as recently as 1860 that Darwin was study­ing embry­ology and the origin of spe­cies.  Wouldn’t he be amazed at the present state of advanced know­ledge?  Birth and death was in his eyes an example of sur­vival of the fit­test.



Bacteria and their Viruses — John Guest — 22nd May 2017

Our speaker, John Guest, described him­self as a reformed bio-chemist, who has become a self-confessed genetic engin­eer.
It is appar­ent that over the years we are living in an age of increas­ing spe­cial­isa­tion; as a con­sequence, more of us seem to know more and more about less and less.
He has been work­ing on the sub­ject for 40 years or more. As a result, since the days of the crack­ing of the com­plex human genetic code or DNA in 1953 by Crick and Watson at Cambridge (for which they received the Noble Prize for Medicine and Physics), which was far in the past but very worthy none the less.

The thought of bac­teria and vir­uses, of which I have a vague and passing know­ledge, are it seems beset by prob­lems of DNA theft and trans­fer­ence. The old maxim of ‘big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite them’ is true it seems. John was able to make a very com­plex sub­ject just about com­pre­hens­ible, if you paid atten­tion, that is.

It’s obvi­ous we should know more about these little crit­ters as they, the bac­teria and vir­uses, rep­res­ent some­thing like 70 per cent of the earth’s bio­mass. I bet you did not know that! They have been around for about 4,000,300 years. We human beings, on the other hand, a mere 200,000. You must excuse me for quot­ing so many facts and fig­ures but they are per­tin­ent to the points John was making. For example, he reckoned that there was some­thing like one kilo­gram of e-coli in each of our bodies. He spoke about the vari­et­ies of bac­teria, includ­ing our old friends e-coli and sal­mon­ella and thou­sands of others. Both of these I assumed, mis­takenly, were bad­dies. But no, we need them. What I can’t fathom out is why at times they become patho­genic and cause us all sorts of pain and grief com­batting them. Edwina Currie, MP as was, and the sal­mon­ella saga scare of a few years back caused prob­lems. At the time I was involved to some extent with this, and the hue and cry it cre­ated in almost caus­ing the col­lapse of the whole poultry industry. Our guest speaker said she was right. Perhaps she was, but it didn’t seem so from where I stood.
The sub­ject of bac­teria and vir­uses and how they inter­act bio­lo­gic­ally has pro­duced sev­eral prom­in­ent researches by Cant Woese in 1976, Fred Sanger, a Nobel Prize Winner 1980 and many others.
It is thought that bac­teria can be and were in the past cre­ated in the hot thermal vents fol­low­ing tec­tonic plates in the deep oceans and pos­sibly from inter­stel­lar seed­ing. The sub­ject is cer­tainly not exhausted, and our thanks to John Guest who made a com­plex sub­ject under­stand­able and inter­est­ing.



A wide sub­ject you would think, but Patrick Harding did more than justice to it.

Oak trees seem to be as famil­iar in Great Britain to the Ancient Britons as they are to us today. A local giant oak is situ­ated in Worsborough, which is about 1,120 years old. Estimates sug­gest that oaks have grown here for at least 10,000 years, and earlier still before the ice age when they tem­por­ar­ily dis­ap­peared.

Pliny, a Roman writer, men­tions ‘goose barnacles’ grow­ing on oaks, which he said even­tu­ally turned into barnacle geese.

The Green Man appeared as a myth­ical male head sur­roun­ded by oak leaves in medi­eval carvings situ­ated in churches — such as at High Bradfield — and cathed­rals.

Stag headed oaks, Patrick explained, are phe­nom­ena of age. It takes 300 years to grow, 300 years to con­sol­id­ate and finally 300 years to die. In those last years, fewer nutri­ents are sup­plied to the top of the tree so dead branches are left.

Royal Oaks are so named because the future King Charles II hid in an oak tree whilst escap­ing cap­ture in 1646. Scottish oaks were men­tioned in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: ‘until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill.’

In earlier times oaks were felled whilst still quite young. Apparently, the lack of strong axes didn’t allow for felling when larger. And cop­picing was used extens­ively for pro­duc­tion of fuel and char­coal. Because of oak’s dur­ab­il­ity, it was used in the build­ing of houses and barns. And oak pegs were used in cruck joints instead of iron nails because mature oak is too hard to bang nails into. This method is still in use in cathed­rals and churches.

Oak is used in the man­u­fac­ture of bar­rels, tubs and vats. Natural wood tannin acts a pre­ser­vat­ive in the stor­age of whisky. It is also used in leather tan­ning and for strong wheel spokes. Early 19th cen­tury car­riages used oak as a pre­ferred mater­ial. The pro­duc­tion of char­coal, the smelt­ing of iron and glass making all used oak.

Ships of all sorts were con­struc­ted for trad­ing, fish­ing and pleas­ure, and the Royal Navy relied on oak for strength and endur­ance. The wood lent itself to provid­ing nat­ur­ally shaped knee joints, ribs, keels and deck­ing. I wonder how many tons of oak were con­sumed in large ‘men of war’ ships and, of course, in the lesser craft.

The number of para­sites, insects, fungi and dis­eases which afflict oak trees is aston­ish­ing. Changing cli­mate tem­per­at­ure and rain­fall also afflict oak growth, unless you may be like some who deny cli­mate change and global warm­ing, in which case you can forget the warn­ings.

Kerracher Gardens -Peter & Trish Kahn — 9th January 2017

Two quite extraordin­ary people set out to create a garden in an area 58 degrees North, in what can only be described as the most remote garden in the United Kingdom.  It is situ­ated only 20 miles from Cape Wrath, N.N. Sutherland.

Describing them­selves as ‘fit’,  which to my mind is a bit of an under­state­ment, they appar­ently ran every­where, includ­ing up and down moun­tains car­ry­ing 56 lbs haver­sacks. The remote cove they chose was set off from one of the many lochs, which seemed to slice into the west­ern coast­line of Northern Scotland The cove’s greatest asset was an area of about 2 acres of rel­at­ively flat land, sur­round­ing a mall croft. The whole of this area has its back, so to speak, facing North. This ‘back’ is high, over a hun­dred feet, pro­tec­ted by con­i­fer­ous woods at the top of the escarp­ment, this area was the place for the garden they decided. And the great adven­ture began. It was going to take huge drive and energy from these two, with local sup­port. The first prob­lem was drain­age, fol­lowed by wind-breaks, deer proof fen­cing, soil struc­ture etc. etc.

They had the site but no access by any road! This was solved by get­ting the cooper­a­tion from a gen­tle­man run­ning a 25 ton cruiser for public trips up the nearby loch. The next step was to build a land­ing stage  for mem­bers of the public to land from the boat. The fish farm fur­ther up the loch had a flat bot­tomed land­ing barge, together with a few strong young men. This was made avail­able for shift­ing heavy goods and machinery, such as digger for con­struc­tion work. A large timber barn and a hun­dred foot poly-tunnel for propaga­tion pur­poses were also built.

After a year or so, the day arrived for the grand open­ing.  The Director of the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens did the hon­ours at a large gath­er­ing of guests. Within a short time  10,000 vis­it­ors per year were call­ing. With two ini­tial gar­dens estab­lished, plants from around the world were grow­ing with great suc­cess. Specimens from New Zealand, South Africa,Australia, the Mediterranean coun­tries and many others flour­ished. Their last ven­ture was a Darwin garden, designed to cel­eb­rate his birth. The theme was Tierra del Fuego, which Darwin had vis­ited on his trip in the Beagle. Most plants cur­rently grow­ing on that island were planted, together with a spe­cially cre­ated mosaic depict­ing the local iguanas and the Beagle.

It is impossible to convey the incred­ible achieve­ment which they had made, but as is the way of all endeavors, anno domini played its part. To con­tinue to run it required a huge com­mit­ment in time and energy, so the decision to retire was made. The croft and gar­dens are now back in the hands of a McCleod, the ori­ginal owners. Peter and Trish are now back in Sheffield and employed in propaga­tion work at the Botanical Gardens, which seems very appro­pri­ate. A remark­able story indeed.

Cycling across Alaska —  Andy Heading — 10th October 2016 

Andy, a very wiry, tough photographer/journalist, pre­ceded his talk with a short his­tory of the Alaskan Klondike gold-rush in the late 19th Century.  Three Swedish gen­tle­men, strolling along a beach, found sev­eral large gold nug­gets, which began what became the ‘Great Klondike Gold Rush.’  Within a year of the event a small town of 30,000 inhab­it­ants had estab­lished itself.  They all lived there in the fond hope of making a quick for­tune.  The atmo­sphere was of a dis­tinctly Wild West char­ac­ter, and included indi­vidu­als such as Wyatt Earp.  Some made for­tunes, others made and then lost a for­tune, and most were dis­ap­poin­ted.

Nome became the main set­tle­ment. In 1925 an out­break of diph­theria occurred and the need for appro­pri­ate vac­cines was urgently required.  The inter­ven­ing 1,000 miles of frozen out­back neces­sit­ated the set­ting up of dog-sled relays to bring these.  After the out­break was cleared up a com­mem­or­ative dog-sled race was set up.  Today, entries from all over the world com­pete in this and it has become a major event.

This is the point when Andy and his part­ner, John, respon­ded to a widen­ing of the race to include cyc­lists, cov­er­ing essen­tially the same route.  The event was described as ‘Impossible’ and so it nearly turned out to be.  Every hazard faced by the dog-teams was faced by the cyc­lists, only more so.  The cyc­lists were much slower than the dog teams and they had to push their bikes through thick snow for 400 of the 1,000 miles.

Before attempt­ing the trip, bikes espe­cially designed and made for them in Sheffield were sup­plied.  The tyres were far wider and stud­ded with spikes!  They star­ted train­ing in earn­est around the Peak District, fin­ish­ing up finally over much rougher ter­rain in South Africa.

To add to his dif­fi­culties Andy had a a very bad acci­dent, which nearly killed him, but he recovered and they pushed on with their plans.  All the food, bed­ding and other equip­ment had to be car­ried by them.  Some of the food included very high cal­orie diets developed by NASA. In spite of con­sum­ing 8–9,000 cal­or­ies per day he still lost 28lbs during the trip.

It was imper­at­ive they stuck to the course route, as at every 100 miles a rescue cabin allowed them to rest and shel­ter.  The rest of the time they slept under the stars.  They were not troubled by wolves, but moose could be trick­ier and had been known to charge dog-teams caus­ing big trouble and deaths.

The lowest tem­per­at­ure they exper­i­enced was -41°C.  Frostbite was obvi­ously a major con­sid­er­a­tion as it could cause injury or even death.  When par­tic­u­larly cold and tired they exper­i­enced hal­lu­cin­a­tions; in one case a snow­drift appeared to be a stalk­ing polar bear.  Probably the greatest fear was having an acci­dent, for no help would be forth­com­ing if they had an injury.

At the last check­point they real­ized they had barely 20 miles to the finish in Nome!  Only 40 of the ori­ginal starters fin­ished.

You might think that would be the last of that madcap scheme – but not a bit of it.  They repeated the exer­cise on two suc­cess­ive years.  It seems their times improved.

I per­son­ally prefer a 4-star hotel with bar ser­vice, but there you are.  Each to his own.

The Seeds of Kings — Mike Ogden — 14th September 2016

The title only gives a hint of the sub­ject. What we were offered was a learned and com­plex break­down of the British mon­archs, from the time of Alfred the Great 871 through the ages to our cur­rent royals, rep­res­en­ted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and her family. Mike Ogden per­formed an amaz­ing jour­ney in one hour or so, a remark­able per­form­ance.

The main theme he was stress­ing was the con­tinu­ation of Alfred’s blood line, from that point until now with occa­sional acknow­ledge­ments to actual his­tor­ical facts from par­tic­u­lar reigns. Beginning with the Normans, fol­lowed by the Plantagenets, Lancastrians, Yorkists, Tudors, Hanoverians and finally the Windsors. From William I, Battle of Hastings 1066, he didn’t do much to endear him­self and his fol­low­ers to the native English. Henry II, the law maker and organ­iser, murdered Archbishop Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, which was not a good move. King John, a cruel, vicious tyrant known for the Magna Carta. Richard III, uncle to the Princes in the Tower and killed at the Battle of Bosworth. Henry VII the first of the Tudors and father of Henry VIII with his six wives and the dis­sol­u­tion of the mon­as­ter­ies. Queen Elizabeth I and the Spanish Armada. James I of England and VI of Scotland. Charles I who was beheaded during the Civil War. Protectorate Oliver Cromwell fol­lowed by Charles II whose reign was known for the Plague, the Fire of London, Samuel Pepys, Wren, and Newton. The Glorious Revolution which lead to William and Mary, then Queen Anne. The Georges and their prob­lems with Charles Stuart, the Young Pretender and the Battle of Culloden. Later the Napoleonic Wars finally settled at the Battle of Waterloo. Queen Victoria and her hus­band Albert over­see­ing the Industrial Revolution and the Great Exhibition. Their chil­dren were mar­ried amongst the royal fam­il­ies of Europe, lead­ing us to the Royal House of Windsor, cre­ated during WW1 etc.

Mike Ogden referred to the lib­eral scat­ter­ing of ‘royal seed’ over the cen­tur­ies so that many of us may well be second cous­ins, so to speak.

From here on in the mon­archy is enter­ing unknown ter­rit­ory. Our Queen has adap­ted well to par­lia­ment­ary demo­cracy and has built up good rela­tions with gov­ern­ment and former mem­bers of the colon­ies as a recon­struc­ted inde­pend­ent Commonwealth of Nations under her lead­er­ship. These are volat­ile times and one won­ders what is to come.

On another matter, lists of Kings and royal houses reminds me of a dis­cus­sion I had with some teach­ers of his­tory. My grand­son was taking his GCSE exams a few years ago and the his­tory syl­labus was ‘The Romans in Britain’, ‘Scientists in the Georgian Period’ e.g. Jenner and the small­pox vac­cin­a­tion, and finally ‘Hitler and Germany.’ All you might think very laud­able study items. My point was, what went on in the inter­ven­ing years – noth­ing? I appre­ci­ate it is not pos­sible to cover all peri­ods but surely at least and under­stand­ing of royal dyn­asties would have provided some sort of frame­work to hang events upon. I didn’t get very far with the argu­ment, I’m afraid, but the point is still rel­ev­ant.