Category Archives: Talks

The Chesterfield Canal ” Michael Edwards 18th January 2021

Our Speaker this week worked as a Biomedical Scientist for the NHS.  One of his many interests before and since retire­ment has been the res­tor­a­tion of the Chesterfield Canal.  He is cur­rently Vice Chairman of that waterway’s res­tor­a­tion soci­ety, the Chesterfield Canal Trust.  We had pre­vi­ously enjoyed two talks on this fas­cin­at­ing topic from other speak­ers and Michael’s talk was to make that a happy treble as he explored an import­ant aspect of our local Economic History.


Canal entrance at West Stockwith  “

With illus­tra­tions through­out, our Speaker was to take us on a ‘before and after’ trip -both vir­tual and historical- along the near 46 miles of the canal.  We star­ted at the canal’s junc­tion with the River Trent and its entrance at West Stockwith tidal Lock, and fin­ished with a glimpse of Chesterfield’s famous twis­ted spire viewed from a spot which is now becom­ing the ‘Waterside’ devel­op­ment off the A61.

Michael opened his talk with a resume of the dif­fi­culties faced by the canal’s con­struc­tion. The land­scape is fairly flat east of Worksop: there­after the topo­graphy no longer per­mit­ted fol­low­ing con­tours. There is a rise west­wards to over 240 feet above river (Trent) level reach­ing a summit at a point where the course runs under the M1 motor­way.  A 74ft drop towards Staveley fol­lows with a final 40ft rise before Chesterfield.  All this required the con­struc­tion of no less than 65 locks, two aque­ducts, sev­eral ‘feeder’ reser­voirs, a minor tunnel at Drakeholes and the major 2284 yard effort at Norwood. There were also other tun­nels which linked dir­ectly with coal work­ings.  Norwood was the scene of a major col­lapse in 1907 due to mining sub­sid­ence, effect­ively cut­ting the canal in two, isol­at­ing Chesterfield and thus losing much trade.

 “Eastern Entrance to Norwood Tunnel near Kiverton Park”

The Chesterfield Canal was con­struc­ted between 1771 and 1777 at the height of the Industrial Revolution, with its rap­idly increas­ing use of steam power. These two devel­op­ments, together with numer­ous tech­nical and mech­an­ical innov­a­tions, res­ul­ted in a grow­ing and  insa­ti­able appet­ite for coal, Iron and other heavy raw mater­i­als.  Likewise, the car­riage of fin­ished products to home and export mar­kets was being hampered by the trans­port logist­ics of the day: access to main artery of the North Midlands, the Trent, was lim­ited to horse and cart or sub­ject to the whims of the Idle and other small rivers.  Under the Leadership of the Duke of Newcastle and sev­eral other large land­lords, who owned min­eral rights – and with the sup­port of local towns along the pro­posed route- “The Company of Proprietors of the Canal Navigation from Chesterfield to the River Trent” was incor­por­ated in 1771.  The share cap­ital raised was £100,000.  The Company appoin­ted James Brindley as its Chief Engineer.  Originally the plan had been for ‘narrow boats’ (requir­ing 7ft locks) only, but nine share­hold­ers funded the extra cost of installing ’broad locks’ (14ft) as far as Retford.  Apart from allow­ing a far cheaper deliv­ery of coal (which halved in price), the canal was  also to  build up a thriv­ing trade a wide range of car­goes includ­ing iron, lead, sand, cement, gravel, bricks, timber and later, ‘wark’  (a kind of mud used in the cut­lery and other trades).  And it was carry stone from the South Anston quar­ries to the Trent (and hence to London via the coast and Thames) which was used to con­struct the then new Houses of Parliament we know today. The busi­ness traded prof­it­ably up to around 1845, at one point paying a dividend of 7%!

Before the Norwood tunnel col­lapse, the main turn­ing point in the canal’s for­tunes was the advent of what became the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincoln Railway (from 1890 the Great Central), which effect­ively took the busi­ness over in 1845.  The MSL did not, how­ever, use part of the Canal as a track-bed as ori­gin­ally pro­posed. It was to remain in rail­way oper­a­tion and own­er­ship (LNER from 1923) up to nation­al­isa­tion in 1948 thence becom­ing the respons­ib­il­ity of British Waterways.  By that point, rap­idly devel­op­ing and more flex­ible road trans­port was to take over the vast major­ity of freight traffic, lead­ing to formal clos­ure in 1960.  Under the Transport Act of 1968, the east­ern Worksop-Stockwith sec­tion (which remained in water but in parts clogged by weed), was des­ig­nated for leis­ure use, but this was only after much cam­paign­ing, led by the Worksop and Retford Boat Club.  Sadly, the sec­tion west of Norwood was to be sold off in parts for devel­op­ment.  Years of neg­lect were to follow together with some destruc­tion of locks etc and the con­struc­tion of new over bridges with insuf­fi­cient head­room to allow a boat or horse to pass.


Transformation: Turnerwood locks before and after res­tor­a­tion in 2002”

Michael Edwards then went on to out­line how the Canal Society came into being in 1978 (It became the Chesterfield Canal Trust in 1998) to spear­head res­tor­a­tion. The Trust ini­tially sought to extend the sec­tion beyond Worksop, but when pro­gress was slow, moved to work­ing on the Chesterfield end.  Over five miles of canal, includ­ing five ori­ginal locks and a brand new lock at Staverley Basin were nav­ig­able by 2017.  The east­ern end was restored from Worksop to the mouth of Norwood Tunnel at Kiverton Park between 1995 and 2003, funded by Derelict Land Grants, English Partnerships and the Heritage Lottery Fund.  Three new mar­i­nas have been con­struc­ted.  Old build­ings have been restored and sev­eral tra­di­tional ‘hump-backed’ over bridges have been rebuilt to replace the more recent ‘’flat’ intru­sions. The canal now boasts a new scratch built ‘Cuckoo Boat’ the ‘Dawn Rose’ not men­tion the tow–horse “Charlie”.  There are 4 ‘trip’ boats.

Charlie” with his keeper Dean

Less than nine miles of the ori­ginal route towards Chesterfield remain to be restored to link the two nav­ig­able sec­tions but this will require some new lengths of the canal to be built to bypass the hous­ing devel­op­ment at Killamarsh.  While the west­ern end is still in good con­di­tion, there will be a need to replace most of Norwood Tunnel  which cannot be restored.  Michael explained some of the options which might bring this about.

Inside Norwood Tunnel look­ing east toward col­lapse”

 The Eastern sec­tion here is man­aged by the Canal and River Trust and the west­ern end by Derbyshire County Council, includ­ing the vis­itor centre at Tapton. The Trust’s centre is loc­ated at Hollingwood.  It’s worth a visit to see the amaz­ing devel­op­ments and regen­er­a­tion around with more work to come.

Michael con­cluded his talk by look­ing ahead to the future. In the longer term there are pro­pos­als to make a link with the Sheffield  Canal via the Rother Valley Country Park.  In the shorter term, while the Chatsworth Estate had been very sup­port­ive, any fur­ther sig­ni­fic­ant pro­gress around the Burrow Hill/Trebor/Staverley Irons works site is cur­rently unclear. This is due to cur­rent fund­ing con­straints, and decisions over the route and main­ten­ance depot for the HST2 Birmingham Leeds sec­tion.  Funding is also a prob­lem at the waterway’s Terminus, the ‘Waterside’ marina devel­op­ment in Chesterfield, which may have to be scaled down.  But few pro­jects of the size of restor­ing 46 miles of canal go without prob­lems and set-backs.  The Trust has raised nearly £200k in dona­tions and £20m in public funds. It now has 2000 members- new mem­bers always wel­come!  The Trust has recently appoin­ted its first paid man­ager, George Roberts, ex Cromford Canal.

While much remains to be done, there has been immense sat­is­fac­tion in restor­ing a derel­ict ditch into an attract­ive public amen­ity.  The canal now attracts not only nature watch­ers and fish­er­man but cyc­lists and walk­ers (0ver 1000 a week at the latest count). We would be very wel­come to join them and thought will be given to a canal walk fol­lowed by a pub lunch when Covid per­mits.


The Spire in the dis­tance.

Our talk –via Zoom- was appre­ci­ated by a record audi­ence of 54, includ­ing one member in California and three guests.


Roger kicked off S10’s Probus 2021 with a fas­cin­at­ing talk about the devel­op­ment of The Brent  Oil field by a UK/Dutch joint ven­ture com­pris­ing of Shell UK and Exxon Mobile. Roger qual­i­fied as a mech­an­ical engin­eer and joined Shell in 1972 and after an appren­tice­ship in Holland went on to work on oil rigs around the world includ­ing in the North Sea.

Roger com­menced his talk by show­ing a video of an oil plat­form exper­i­en­cing a severe storm and illus­trat­ing that what we all might have thought as a solid struc­ture actu­ally was affected by the wave pat­terns pitch­ing not only up and down but also rotat­ing reveal­ing what a com­plex pro­cess it is to drill in such a hos­tile envir­on­ment.

The UK sector of the North Sea fol­low­ing the dis­cov­ery of recov­er­able oil and gas reserves was divided into quad­rants and blocks which were then put up for tender achiev­ing at that time in 1964 prices of between £1million and £2million pounds. Oil  depos­its were to be found in the middle to north of the sea with gas fields to the south, nearer to Holland and Norway. The first UK rig to be built was in 1964 but unfor­tu­nately this was posi­tioned in an area of the North Sea that was unpro­duct­ive and did not pro­duce any oil. A costly exper­i­ence though later in his talk Roger did tell us that only one in three wells drilled would pro­duce suf­fi­cient oil to be eco­nom­ic­ally viable.

Roger then explained the vari­ous types of plat­forms which were developed over time as the industry got gained exper­i­ence and expert­ise in con­struc­tion meth­ods. Initially rigs were Jack Up  designs and or semi-submersible how­ever it seems that many of the early designs had bad ends with the sink­ing of Sea Gem built in 1965 and Sea Quest oper­ated by BP in the Forties Field  this going down off the African coast after being sold off. The design of the early rigs had the drill head placed on the edge of the plat­form how­ever this proved to be unstable and later models had the drill head in the centre of the deck with the whole plat­form being sta­bil­ised via bal­last tanks in the “legs”. Building of the early rigs was under­taken in the North East and in Scotland how­ever  the first plat­forms had to be towed across the Atlantic until con­struc­tion facil­it­ies were com­pleted in the UK.

Offshore Jack Up Drilling Rig Over The Production Platform in The Middle of The Sea

Shell’s first oil field was ini­tially named Field A UK how­ever this was soon changed to Brent to reflect the name of the geo­lo­gical form­a­tion in the region but also Shell chose names of water birds for this and other fields where they oper­ated.

Having been posted to Aberdeen in 1973 Roger worked on the Brent field for some time with travel out to the rigs being by heli­copter dressed in those days in ordin­ary clothes  i.e. with no   sur­vival suits though the heli­copters had been adap­ted for long range flight it being some 150 miles from base to the rigs, the fuel capa­city was lifted to give a range of 500 miles and addi­tional adapt­a­tions were made to allow ditch­ing in the sea in the event of an emer­gency.

Early trips had to be nav­ig­ated without the bene­fit of GPS and pilots used a radio tri­an­gu­la­tion system  before a series of marker bouys were laid to improve accur­acy GPS not being avail­able until the 1980’s.

Before oil extrac­tion could start it was neces­sary to under­take core test­ing to ascer­tain likely pro­duc­tion levels. These cores could be as much as 450 feet in length and were gen­er­ally clay and in the case of the Brent Field often drip­ping with oil. The field itself was approx­im­ately 25 miles long and 4 miles wide with the four rigs loc­ated equidistant down the centre line of the field able to drill down two miles ver­tic­ally and one mile side­ways.

As time passed con­struc­tion of many of the rigs moved over to the use of con­crete these being built from the ground up at deep water loc­a­tions such as Nigg Bay with the lower sec­tions poured in dry docks then  floated out to deep water for com­ple­tion. These rigs weighed some 300,000 tons and are sig­ni­fic­antly higher when com­pleted than the Eiffel Tower the work­ing plat­forms being built to ensure that they would not be inund­ated by a 100 year event storm wave.

Once oil pro­duc­tion star­ted the oil was stored in ballasted/floating tanks some 93m long and then trans­ferred to tankers for distribution/refining one such example was the well known Brent Spar which you may recall was occu­pied by Greenpeace prior to being broken up the ori­ginal plan being to leave it in situ. Pipelines even­tu­ally super­seded this meth­ods with gas lines being laid in 1978 and oil pipe lines in 1982.

Pipe layer

Oil was taken from the Brent Field from 1976 until 2010 with pro­duc­tion peak­ing in 1985. During the course of its life the price of crude oil fluc­tu­ated from $10 a barrel in the 1970’s to $147 a barrel in 2007. In 1985 rev­enue from the North Sea peaked at £20 bil­lion fall­ing to £4 bil­lion. Tax rev­enue from the oil and gas fields has been £20 bil­lion a great boost to the UK’s eco­nomy. Wind down costs are estim­ated at £53 bil­lion the tax­payer foot­ing a bill of £24 bil­lion.

Roger then showed a fas­cin­at­ing video show­ing the com­plex­ity of rig dis­mant­ling using spe­cial­ist twin hull barges/ships to lift the work­ing plat­forms off the con­crete legs which will remain in situ over the now sealed off well heads.

A most inform­at­ive and inter­est­ing talk about an industry that has bought great fin­an­cial bene­fit to the UK and one which Roger thinks will con­tinue on for many years until renew­ables can at last provide suf­fi­cient power for the future.

Photographs cour­tesy of :  Shell UK, Dreamstime, Drilling&Contractors News,Drillingformulas,  Morrispeter,Commons Wikimedia,Offshore-fleet and MSImages


A Zoom Magic Show — Richard Reynolds — 21 December 2020


Richard Reynolds is usu­ally extremely busy at this time of year with his magic shows but the Coronavirus 19 has meant changes to his modus operandi.  He has devised an obser­va­tion show for audi­ences on Zoom and he kindly squeezed in, at short notice, a present­a­tion for Stumperlowe Probus.

The half hour show starts with a reminder of the Rubik’s Cube.  It was inven­ted by the Hungarian archi­tect Professor Erno Rubick and has been very pop­u­lar from the 1980’s to today.

Various people have achieved incred­ible speeds in solv­ing the game but Richard intro­duces another slant on what to do with the cube and the pat­terns that are cre­ated.  We then move onto gambling card games like “chase the ace”.  Richard con­vinces his audi­ence to never get involved with such as the dealer will through sleight of hand always win.

Lottery cards are his next focus fol­lowed by a ref­er­ence to his interest in psy­cho­logy and people’s sus­cept­ib­il­ity to sug­ges­tion.  He uses play­ing cards and prob­ably sleight of hand to guess the choices that his audi­ence will make.  As a finale he uses the basic sym­bols used by the CIA when research­ing tele­pathy to pre­dict choices that a member of his audi­ence will make.

The half hour “show” flew past with a remote audi­ence very much involved with every second.  It is not easy to fool all of the people all of the time in this situ­ation, but Richard suc­ceeded with dis­tinc­tion.


Then we had a most enjoy­able half hour, as three of our newest mem­bers “took to the floor” to intro­duce them­selves to the rest of the mem­bers. Their life exper­i­ences clearly showed that they will add  greatly to the vast fund of know­ledge within the club. Indeed one has already given us a fas­cin­at­ing talk!

Welcome gen­tle­men!


The French Resistance – Prof. Matthew Cobb – 7th December 2020

Recently we have been reminded of the anniversar­ies of key dates in World War II and this was a timely present­a­tion on the role of the “ French Resistance “ and its con­tri­bu­tion to the lib­er­a­tion of France. The phoney war ended with the Germany’s light­ning attack on France in June 1940 fol­lowed by 6 weeks of fight­ing. France was cap­tured and split into the Occupied and Non- Occupied Zones under the con­trol of Vichy France which was the col­lab­or­a­tion­ist ruling regime in Nazi-occupied France.  A nat­ural reac­tion for any cit­izen in the situ­ation would be to launch imme­di­ate res­ist­ance.  However, the fight­ing res­ul­ted in 300,000 dead or severely injured and 1.8 mil­lion pris­on­ers.  France was in no pos­i­tion to launch any mean­ing­ful res­ist­ance to the occu­pi­ers. Indeed, there was a com­plete col­lapse of any res­ist­ance under the prin­ciple “ Politics  of Collaboration “  dir­ec­ted by Marshal Petain.

General de Gaulle 1942

Charles de Gaulle was exiled in England but was a power­ful voice in urging French sol­diers to take up arms and form the “Free French Army “. He said “The flame of French res­ist­ance must not or shall not die “.

Early res­ist­ance activ­ity was prim­it­ive and lacked coordin­a­tion involved in pub­lish­ing news sheets, pro­pa­ganda , cut­ting tele­phone wires and gen­eral dis­rupt­ive beha­viour. Those who were caught were invari­ably shot as a strong deterrent to others. In November 1940 hun­dreds of Parisian school chil­dren bravely demon­strated against the regime but were bru­tally repressed. The com­mun­ist party had mem­bers and resources and would have been active but Stalin and Hitler had signed a pact that Germany would not invade Russia so they were caught in a con­flict of loy­al­ties. However this was resolved, when Hitler attacked USSR on 22nd June 1941 rip­ping up the Hitler/Stalin pact.  The com­mun­ist party youth took action and killed prom­in­ent Germans.  Retaliation was vicious and for every German killed 20/30/50 civil­ians were shot.

Resistance was still piece­meal and largely unco­ordin­ated. A Jean Moulin set out to visit res­ist­ance groups across France and coordin­ate inform­a­tion on the groups, a task need­ing the utmost tact and trust no doubt !    In December 1941, USA entered the war after Japan bombed Pearl Harbour.  At this news De Gaulle declared “ We’ve won” and he was right,  thank­fully.. The Allies con­trolled the pro­pa­ganda and the BBC ( Radio  London) com­mu­nic­ated with res­ist­ance through coded mes­sages to assist with the drop­ping of sup­plies and agents.  The Germans con­tin­ued to hound the Jews and over 13,000 were depor­ted and many exterm­in­ated on mass.

By 1943 the res­ist­ance had become more active.  The Vichy gov­ern­ment made a con­ces­sion to the Germans agree­ing that all able bodied Frenchmen should be forced to go and work in Germany. Many refused to go par­tic­u­larly in the south and hid in the hills, call­ing them­selves Maquis which trans­lates as “taking to the hills. “ The res­ist­ance lead­ers saw quickly that here was a body of young men not only numer­ous but des­per­ate, brave, train­able and useful.  Jean Moulin united the res­ist­ance under the lead­er­ship of Charles de Gaulle. The res­ist­ance was now derail­ing trains, des­troy­ing factor­ies, inform­ing the Allies of German troop move­ments, aiding downed airmen to escape German cap­ture and return to England. Captured res­ist­ance fight­ers were shot.

Members of the Maquis — includ­ing two SOE oper­at­ors

The end of German occu­pa­tion was in sight. The D-Day land­ings were on the 6th June and the Allies even­tu­ally break­out of the Normandy land­ings on 13th July.  The French res­ist­ance were able to give pre-invasion intel­li­gence about German troop move­ments and coastal defences as well as maps and photos to the Allies, all the time dis­rupt­ing  German activ­ity. Charles de Gaulle vis­ited the town of Bayeux in N.W. France on 14th  June 1944 and he was imme­di­ately acclaimed by the public as their figure head which was an embar­rass­ment to the Allies.  The Germans sur­rendered on 25th August 1944.  A major rally on 26th August 1944 atten­ded by 1 mil­lion people pro­pelled Charles de Gaulle to power.

The French res­ist­ance made a sig­ni­fic­ant con­tri­bu­tion to the defeat of the Germans and the lib­er­a­tion of their coun­try.    Matthew raised an inter­est­ing ques­tion     “What would we have done if Britain had been  invaded ? ”    Answers please !    An excel­lent talk, well pre­pared and pro­fes­sion­ally presen­ted on Zoom.

For those of you who wish to learn more, Matthew has writ­ten a book avail­able on Amazon  :-

The Resistance  — The French fight against the Nazis.  




Iran: history, country and people. George Clark 16th November 2020

George told us that, in the past, he had vis­ited sev­eral areas along the ’Silk Road’ but had never been to Iran.  When he  told his family and friends that he was con­sid­er­ing a trip to Iran they were unhappy, because they thought that it was a dan­ger­ous place for British, Europeans or Americans to visit.

They said, “You might be arres­ted and put in gaol.”

However, he found that Iran has lots of his­tory and the people he met were really nice, but that they thought that they had a “shit gov­ern­ment!”

Some people think of Iran as Persia but the Iranians don’t agree.

It is the 17th largest coun­try in the world (636,000 square miles) and a pop­u­la­tion of over 80 mil­lion, of which 99% are Muslims.

It is part moun­tain­ous, where the rich go skiing, and part desert, which is very arid but greens up when the rains come.

In about 1000 B.C. Iranians migrated  from their home­land into Medea on the Caspian Sea in the north and Persis on the Persian Gulf in the south.

In the 7th Century B.C. the Persian tribes in the south were uni­fied and in 549 B.C. they conquered Medea , fol­lowed by Babylon in 539 B.C., and the first Persian Empire, stretch­ing from Pakistan in the east to Turkey in the west, was formed.

Cyrus, the con­queror, stated, ”I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, power­ful king, king of Babylon and the four quar­ters of the earth.”

Respect the tra­di­tions, cus­toms and reli­gions of my Empire.”

[Was this the first declar­a­tion of Human Rights?]

There fol­lowed many inva­sions and battles and dyn­asties until in 1979 the Islamic Revolution installed Ayatollah Khomeini.

In 1980 — 1988 Iran -Iraq War, inva­sion of the US Embassy, Nuclear Proliferation and Treaties and inter­fer­ence in Middle East polit­ics all led to the situ­ation in today’s

Iran.  This explains why George’s friends think that Iran is not a friend of the U.K.

The Government of Iran is in layers.  The first layer is elec­ted by the elect­or­ate

(but a can­did­ate cannot be elec­ted unless the Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader in the second layer agree!)  This means that nobody gets the chance to be elec­ted by the elect­or­ate unless the sit­ting Government agrees — hardly demo­cratic!

The elect­or­ate, in gen­eral, are not happy with Government because of the Economy.

The Economy depends on oil and gas, but sanc­tions mean that they cannot sell it so the eco­nomy is going down the tubes.

The aver­age income is 40 dol­lars a month, but the mul­lahs are get­ting richer as the pop­u­la­tion gets poorer.

The lan­guage spoken is Farsi.

Women can vote and are allowed to drive and are better off than those in sur­round­ing coun­tries but they have to wear a hijab? when they go out.  They can marry at age 14.

George’s trip star­ted in Shiraz in the south.

(This is where the Shiraz grape came from but alco­hol is banned for Muslims!)

He trav­elled north through Yazd and Isfahan to Tehran.

He saw a Paradise Garden — Paradise comes from ‘para­didi’ which  means ‘walled garden’.  (The gar­dens are so beau­ti­ful in an arid desert area that the word came to mean ‘heaven on earth’.)

He vis­ited a mosque — women were allowed to enter and wor­ship but they had to be dressed so they were covered from head to foot.

In the desert he saw the extens­ive ruins of Persephelis? which were in remark­ably good  con­di­tion, prob­ably due to the desert cli­mate.  The city was des­troyed by Alexander the Great.

The rest of his trip included:

A fish farm in the middle of a desert!,

A temple where the inhab­it­ants take their dead up to a Tower of Silence, which is a  crater on a hill top, where the bodies are left for the birds to pick clean,

A quad­rat irrig­a­tion system of shafts dug down to the water table to tunnel water to fields.  The farm­ers have to pay a water tax.

Tehran is a desert city but it has a Paradise Garden, a bath house and National Bank of Iran, which is full of mag­ni­fi­cent jew­ellery.  However, air pol­lu­tion in Tehran is ter­rible because of the dens­ity of traffic.

George was keen to stress that the food was good although pork is for­bid­den.  He had meals in people’s houses, in res­taur­ants, from street vendors and from pic­nics provided by the drivers.

At all times he felt free to wander and safe to speak to the people he met, which is why he encour­aged us to try a trip to Iran.



Research into Neurology: Bedside to Lab and Back Again — Nick Verber — 2nd Nov 2020

Nick Verber is a research regis­trar work­ing for his PhD at the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience Institute (SITraN), University of Sheffield. He gave an excel­lent talk, very suc­cess­fully over­com­ing the tempta­tion of many medics to litter their lec­tures with clin­ical jargon. It was clearly delivered and easily fol­lowed by a large Zoom gath­er­ing of 44 Probus mem­bers.

Although there is a long way to go before there is a cure for motor neuron dis­ease (MND), the Institute here in Sheffield, led by Dame Prof Pamela Shaw, is a world leader in clin­ical and sci­entific research into this and other chal­len­ging and dis­tress­ing con­di­tions.

Nick began with a typ­ical case his­tory which illus­trated the pro­gress­ive nature of MND over a two year period, although there is a great deal of vari­ation in the rate of pro­gres­sion from patient to patient. MND is cruel to patients, rel­at­ives and their friends. It affects all vol­un­tary muscles through­out the body and the case his­tory illus­trated how it pro­gressed from minor weak­ness of the limbs to slurred speech, dif­fi­culty in swal­low­ing which can result in saliva, food and drink going down into the lungs, and breath­ing prob­lems.

Cause of MND

This is com­plic­ated and not fully under­stood. The vast number of nerves con­trolling vol­un­tary muscles become dam­aged and cease to func­tion prop­erly (in con­trast to sens­ory nerves bring­ing sig­nals to the brain about touch, smell, sight, pain etc. and to auto­nomic nerves which con­trol the gut, bowels, water­works and sexual func­tion, all of which remain unaf­fected in MND).

Dr Weaver’s amaz­ing dis­sec­tion — for details see last para­graph

These motor nerves carry sig­nals from the brain to muscles involved with move­ment, pos­ture, speech, swal­low­ing, laugh­ing, and coordin­a­tion of eye move­ments. Eye and facial move­ments are affected much later. Poor strength in the head and neck leads to deformed pos­ture, as seen in the famil­iar wheel­chair pos­ture of Stephen Hawking.

Stephen Hawking. Note the effect of wast­ing of head and neck muscles and fail­ure to sup­port the head

As muscles pro­gress­ively weaken, mental fac­ulties usu­ally remain uncom­prom­ised, caus­ing immense dis­tress and frus­tra­tion. But patients are often prag­matic and pos­it­ive, and are keen to par­ti­cip­ate in, and raise funds for, research.


MND is rel­at­ively rare, with 5000 people having the con­di­tion in the UK. It has the same life­time risk as the more common mul­tiple scler­osis (MS), but there are sub­stan­tially fewer people with MND due to the poor life expect­ancy.


Successful treat­ment is indi­vidu­al­ised and patient focussed, led by a team of spe­cial­ists, nurses, physio­ther­ap­ists, dieti­cians etc. who make the dia­gnosis by clin­ical exam­in­a­tion and invest­ig­a­tion with blood tests, brain MRI, lumbar punc­ture. Treatment centres around indi­vidu­al­ised mul­tidiscip­lin­ary care with pro­vi­sion of social, psy­cho­lo­gical and diet­ary sup­port.

Medication has lim­ited use­ful­ness but Riluzole may slow nerve deteri­or­a­tion. Other inter­ven­tions include diet­ary sup­ple­ments, homo­gen­ised food, gast­rostomy (feed­ing tube inser­ted through the abdom­inal wall into the stom­ach), physio­ther­apy, splints, highly soph­ist­ic­ated wheel­chairs, assisted vent­il­a­tion, occu­pa­tional ther­apy, mobil­ity and cut­lery aids.

Mobility and Cutlery aids

Speech and lan­guage ther­apy is import­ant, and voice bank­ing is avail­able. The inab­il­ity to swal­low saliva (nor­mally 500ml per day) and drool­ing is dis­tress­ing and helped by simple med­ic­a­tion. Approximation of voice with regional accents has recently become pos­sible, over­com­ing to some extent the imper­sonal Dalek sound of the com­puter. Communication prob­lems as speech and motor func­tion decline can be addressed by eye sig­nals facil­it­at­ing com­puter typing.

The main aim of treat­ment and long-term mon­it­or­ing is to allow the patient to retain inde­pend­ence and qual­ity of life.


Nick touched on how MND research is con­duc­ted, using bio­mark­ers

Biomarker research

to assess change in patient con­di­tion, with the aim of provid­ing evid­ence to guide appro­pri­ate treat­ment. Blood tests, nerve con­duc­tion stud­ies, MRI and con­stant mon­it­or­ing of dis­ease are all part of this pro­cess, and are par­tic­u­larly import­ant for assess­ing pro­gress during clin­ical trials

Research is expens­ive. Identifying a useful bio­marker is cru­cial for attract­ing research fund­ing. Charitable fund­ing is helped by high pro­file patients such as Doddy Weir and Rob Burrows who make a pos­it­ive con­tri­bu­tion towards dis­ease treat­ment through research.

MND com­prises sub­groups of patients with sim­ilar but dis­tinct dis­ease pro­files. One research aim in Sheffield is to improve defin­i­tion of these sub­groups in order to improve their treat­ment and avoid any inter­ven­tion found not to work. Some bio­mark­ers differ between MND patients, or between patients and healthy volun­teers.

Skin biopsies are simple, quick, pain­less (fol­low­ing local anaes­thetic admin­is­tra­tion) and read­ily access­ible (with patient con­sent). Fibroblasts are present within them. These are imma­ture cells with mat­ur­a­tion poten­tial to develop new skin or scar tissue (in the case of trauma). Another research strategy in Sheffield is to give genetic inform­a­tion to these fibro­blasts to con­vert them to nerve tissue in a labor­at­ory set­ting. This over­comes a major prob­lem in neur­o­lo­gical research of being unable to access live brain or nerve tissue for exper­i­ment­a­tion.

Nick con­cluded by giving his grat­it­ude to the patients and volun­teers that have donated their time and samples to his research.

If anyone has any interest in volun­teer­ing for research, then please get in touch via his email address at the bottom.


Couldn’t resist this one! Dr Weaver’s amaz­ing dis­sec­tion of Harriet Cole’s nervous system (its huge com­plex­ity is illus­trated by the fact it took from 1888 to 1893 to com­plete the dis­sec­tion, which can still be seen in Philadelphia) (Barton M. The Nervous System of Harriet Cole. Past Medical History. Aug 18, 2018)

Correspondence address:

Those of you who were impressed by the work that Nick and his col­leagues are research­ing can make a dif­fer­ence by donat­ing by copy­ing and paste this into your search engine.