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Emeritus Professor Raja Varma takes a walk down memory lane

Emeritus Professor Raja Varma takes a nostalgic trip back to when he first came to study at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine in the 1950s.

“In 1952 I was working as a Research Fellow in the All Institute of Hygiene and Public Health in Calcutta (Kolkata) when I applied for and received a Colombo Plan Fellowship (the second batch of Fellows) to study in the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. The Colombo Plan was an integrated master plan involving foreign aid and technical assistance for the economic and social development of the region. I left Calcutta early in October 1952 on the ship SS Canton travelling first class with two other Fellows, Mr Banerjee, a telephone engineer from Calcutta and Mr Razvi, Minister for Labour in the Mysore (now Karnataka) government India, and on 19 October was met at Tilbury Docks by a representative of the British Council. The lady who looked after us at the British Council was Miss Goodhart. The following morning we were booked into a B&B hotel in Tavistock Square. I had contacted Mr Balaram (an old friend) who was already in the UK and he took me to another B&B in Earls Court.

The next day I was taken to the School and met Professor Buxton, the Head of the Medical Entomology Department, and Dr (later Professor) Bertram. Major Leeson was the Senior Lecturer and Sid Smith was the Chief Technician, both of whom are no longer with us. The Department shared the third floor with the Department of Helminthology (headed by Professor Buckley, followed by Professor Nelson and Professor Webbe) and the Department of Protozoology (headed by Colonel (Dr) HE Shortt, followed by Professor Garnham and Professor Lumsden). The reader in Helminthology was Dr Le Roux, a chain smoking South African who kept tanks of snails for his study of schistosomiasis. It used to be said that people working on the third floor late at night could sense Dr Le Roux’s ghost walking the corridors.

The School in those days was different from what it is now. The porter in the front office was Mr Flatman, a genial ex-police sergeant from the Met, who used to spend his spare time shadow boxing, and the telephone operator was Mr Archard, who incidentally spoke excellent French. Some of the School staff may still remember him. The telephone exchange, if one could call it that, was a cubby hole next to the west side lift on the second floor. Mr Archard could recognise the voices of every single member of the School. Mr Archard and the telephone exchange subsequently came down to the front office. I wonder if he is still alive.

The Dean of the School was Dr Andrew Topping, the Registrar was Mrs Young and Mrs Shaw was the lady who dealt with student affairs. The librarian was Cyril Barnard; Brian Furner may remember him. I registered for my Ph.D with Professor Buxton and Dr Bertram. The other Ph.D. students were Mr Naidu from Hyderabad, the late Marco Giglioli who married Jean May, a senior technician who used to cook him meals in his room, Mary Harrison, who after finishing her Ph.D. with Professor Jimmy Busvine, emigrated to Canada, Anne Hudson who also did her Ph.D. with Jimmy Busvine and went on to work with Vincent Dethier at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health (she lives in Canada now) , the late Donald Minter who finished his Ph.D. as an external student at the Kenya Medical Research Institute in Nairobi.

Jimmy Busvine was quite a character and he could walk along the narrow ledge outside the windows of the third floor laboratory. The refectory was on the ground floor, where I think, the accounts offices are now. The Finance Officer was Leslie Ponsford who also looked after the Winches Farm Field Station in St. Albans and the accountant was Mr Ollive.

Tottenham Court Road still had bombed sites and prefab buildings on the west side, where you could get fish and chips wrapped in newspaper from Jack’s fish bar. I think there is a Boots and a cinema there now. There was a furniture store, Wolfe and Hollander at the junction of Tottenham Court Road and Store Street. I had digs in Golders Green and in the evenings went for a meal either in the Forte cafe (there is a men’s clothing store there now, I think) where the Irish waitress used to serve me an extra vol-au-vent for free, the Lyons Corner house Brasserie at the junction of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street where in the basement while eating your meal you could listen to a young lady playing the electric organ, or the Swiss restaurant in St. Giles Circus (where the Centre Point now stands) now run by an elderly Austrian and his two young daughters  where you could eat a Vienna steak, the precursor of the modern hamburger with set Bulgarian yoghurt (there was no other yoghurt available).

The weekends were difficult, usually coming to the School saving myself a shilling, which had to be put in the slot meter for the fire for one hour. In the afternoons, keeping myself warm by going to the one-shilling cinema in Oxford Street where one could sit for hours in the warmth and watch the news and serials such as the Perils of Pauline.  I forget what the latter was about.

Goodge Street was the trolley bus terminal for trolley buses coming from Aldgate East and there were overhead cables all the way from Aldgate East. Gower Street and Malet Street were two-way. In those days all restaurants were closed on Christmas day and the only place you could get a meal were pubs open in the evenings where one could get a ham sandwich.”

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Feature image provided by Emeritus Professor Raja Varma 

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