Frogs spawn a research success

May 26, 1995

In the first of an occasional series John Habgood, Archbishop of York, tells Martyn Kelly about his first academic publication in 1950 in the Journal of Physiology. One of the tasks of moral leadership," wrote the Archbishop of York recently in response to the Pope's encyclical Evangelium Vitae, "is to draw lines that should not be crossed. But," he goes on, "if moral theology is thus to take account of biology, then it must surely pay some attention to one of the most fundamental biological principles, the principle of gradualism."

Perhaps only a theologian thoroughly steeped in the manners and mores of scientists can fully appreciate how fuzzy a concept such as life can sometimes be.

John Habgood went up to Cambridge from Eton in 1945 on a state bursary given to encourage young scientists in the study of radar and other new technologies invented during the war. He recalls: "I was then told by my director of studies that he didn't like young men just doing physics, chemistry and mathematics because it made them very dull and I had better do physiology. I said 'what's physiology?' He explained and I said 'that sounds interesting, I'll do it.' I went on to do Part 2 Physiology and having got a first in both parts the natural thing was to stay on and do research. I was employed for two years by the Medical Research Council, and that counted as National Service because I was teaching medical students."

The topic of his research was suggested by his supervisor, Dr (later professor) Matthews. "It was based on the observation, long-known, that when you injure the skin at one point you get an area around the injury which is inflamed and painful," he explains. "Neurones have a tree-like structure to collect sensory information from many receptors. Scientists at the time thought that when skin was injured an impulse went up the nerve conveying the stimulus to the brain, but that when it reached a junction of the nerve, it also went down to other interconnected receptors. The object of my research was to see whether this, which had been postulated in human skin, could be reproduced in the skin of other animals by separating a skin preparation, stimulating a nerve by passing electric shocks through it and then seeing whether one could detect an increase in sensitivity around it.''

This was in 1948. "There was virtually no money for research so one of the first things I had to do was build apparatus and that, believe it or not, meant building a cathode ray oscilloscope. I had the corner of a large room,'' he recalls. "I went off to an old aircraft dump outside Cambridge to collect bits and pieces from the aircraft to help build apparatus. I also found things like old gramophone motors and so on to drive a camera." It was very much the thing any postgraduate might expect. "Matthews was the sort of man who let you get on with it and I recall very little advice, actually, except encouragement.'' None the less it worked, and Habgood's first scientific paper was submitted to the Journal of Physiology in April 1950.

"I was just lucky because I began to get some results fairly soon and I was encouraged to write them up.

"In subsequently turning all this into a thesis I did a good deal more work and extended it from frogs to rats.'' He cannot recall any particular feelings when it was finally published but notes that it was generally well received: "You tend to judge these things by the number of requests for reprints that you get and I remember getting them from all over the place. I was flattered a year or two ago when I was at a lecture to find that one of the speakers, who was an expert on pain, had taken the trouble to look it up and had quoted it in his lecture. I think that as a piece of research it has since been superseded in terms of techniques. It was pretty crude.'' But Habgood's interests were shifting. "In Cambridge in those days there were very large numbers of pre-clinical medical students and not many staff to do the personal supervision that students had to have, so young research students were roped in very early. I became much involved with students and their problems and because I was explicitly Christian they used me quite a bit for consultation on such matters. Over time I began to feel that my interests were shifting in that direction.'' Events such as the Korean War forced a re-evaluation of his motives. "The comprehensive search for truth,'' he writes in his book A Working Faith (1980) "is larger than science.'' In 1954 he was ordained, although he does not regard himself as having left science behind altogether. "I've always tried to keep up some scientific reading and to some extent see myself as somebody concerned to remind Christians of the importance of science and not to be frightened by it. I think there is a need for a generalist, particularly at the points where science impacts on ordinary life, and the ability, therefore, to ask pertinent questions that show some knowledge is very important.''

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