Monday, 27 September 2010

Baying for blood

I began my debate with the vicar (The Big Debate) by saying that I was reminded of the story of Daniel in the lion's den, but it wouldn't be clear until question-time whether I or the vicar was to play the part of Daniel. I needn't have worried. There were only pussy-cats in the audience and the vicar and I were as friendly as a couple of Milibands. How long their brotherly love will persist is, however, debatable.

I had been nervous at the outset, since I was going to be critical of the Papal Edicts on birth-control, abortion etc. (remember that "Truth from a Divine Source is infallible") and I knew that Pontiffs have a bad reputation with regard to the punishment of heretics. Fortunately there were more pontificators than fire-brands in the audience.

Pontifex is a funny word isn't it? Nothing to do, it seems, with little flat black liquorice cakes made in Yorkshire. It seems that in Ancient Rome a pontifex was a member of a college of priests that had control of religion, their chief being known as the Pontiff. To be pontifical is thus to be pompously dogmatic, and a pontifical mass is nothing to do with a lorry load of Pomfret-cakes but it is a mass celebrated by a bishop wearing his full vestments. And you all know that the Latin pons, means 'a bridge', and facere means 'to build', hence the Pontiff is a bridge-builder, although I incline towards the alternative philological derivation of the old Umbrian word puntis meaning 'stupid bastard'.

Speaking of scary debates though, nothing was worse than my acceptance of a flattering invitation to take part in a televised debate in Birmingham on the modern use of the notorious drug thalidomide. Its use in women of child-bearing age had of course been banned many years previously but I and a few other dermatologists had found it useful to treat several uncommon diseases in men or post-menopausal women. Behcet's disease, for example causes painful vaginal ulceration, strokes and other complications, and it is potentially fatal as well as extremely painful. At that time (mid-1980s) no other treatment, even including large doses of steroids, was helpful for Behcet's disease.

Having had make-up applied and been briefly introduced to the television presenter, I was led to my chair on the front row of the audience, where I was somewhat dismayed to see that the majority of the audience was composed of young adults with vestigial arms and/or legs. In my naivete I'd assumed I was going to talk about my research with a group of doctors and sufferers from Behcet's disease or leprosy.

Too late, the cameras rolled and I realized I was the only doctor present, and my role was to represent all the 'power-crazed, immoral, greedy, drug-firm scientists' who had caused the thalidomide tragedy in the first place, and far worse, I was a doctor and I was still prescribing it. In vain did I try to explain that the thalidomide disaster had happened in 1962, when I was still a junior medical student, and it had only recently been re-introduced under special licence for dermatology consultants to use as a last resort, and only for men or post-menopausal women, and only when no other treatment had worked, and the drug was only to be given to responsible patients who could keep it in a locked cabinet.

One female patient with Behcet's disease spoke in my support saying thalidomide had "given her back her life". We were both lucky to escape with our lives. The howling and baying for our blood would have put a Jerry Springer audience to shame. 'Armless they were not.

So that's why I had no worries about standing in front of assorted vicars and telling them there is no God. In my opinion.


  1. Hi John, I've been working on our boat recently, and the weather has been a bit wet to say the least. However, every time I needed a bit of sun so I could paint, it obligingly showed up. Clear proof of miracles I have no doubt, and obviously proof of a divine being

  2. My sister has Behcet's - I shall send her to read this ...

  3. Glad you read this Viv, because I immediately thought of your sis and Di.

    An avenue worth exploring.

    Ali x

  4. Vivianne- If you Google: thalidomide for Behcet's
    you'll get some information, and the British Association of Dermatologists, based in London, would put your sister in touch with the current experts in her area.