Graduation address, St. George's Hospital Medical School, 18th March 2004

In March 2004, I was greatly honoured and surprised by an invitation to be the Presiding Guest at the graduation ceremony for post-graduate degrees held by by St. George's Hospital Medical School. I was asked to give an address of about 12 minutes to the graduands, guests, and staff. I found this quite a challenge: no visual aids, no graphs, no equations, and an audience ranging from babies to grandparents. What follows is what I came up with, and I can report that I delivered it one minute under time. I then congratulated the graduands individually as they graduated, and presented the prizes to the best-performing students. One of these prizes gave me particular pleasure: the Paul Freeling Prize, named in honour of a late colleague and friend, a man it was a privilege to have known.

I enjoyed the event greatly. Doug Altman remarked that you should never write anything you cannot publish or prepare a talk you can give only once. I don't think I shall ever give this one again, but here it is. I hope you like it.

Martin Bland
19 March 2004.

Graduation address

Principal, graduands, guests,

Being here today marks the culmination of what must be the longest association of anyone with the M.Sc. programme at St. George's. Not many people know this, but the M.Sc. in Public Health had it origins long ago and far away, not quite in another galaxy but in another medical school, St. Thomas's, which, of course, it has outlived.

It began back in the early 1970s, not as an M.Sc. course, but as the Thames Consortium course for candidates for the fellowship of the Faculty of Community Health Medicine of the Royal College of Physicians. I was a lecturer at St. Thomas's, where it was then based, and I was one of the teachers of statistics on this course. After I joined St George's, where I was to remain for 27 years, I carried on teaching. To find more space, teaching was moved from the converted nurses' home in Kennington, where the Dept. of Community Medicine lived, to the Royal Army Medical College. Here we taught in a lab surrounded by anatomical specimens and snakes in jars, all rather inimical to a study of standard error. Then coordination of what was, by now, the Thames and Anglian Consortium passed from St. Thomas's to Guys. There teaching moved to a basement pathology lab, decorated with strange paintings of Chinese people with huge tumours (and I do mean huge) all around the walls. Quite bizarre. I found the only way to concentrate on the t distribution was to keep my head down. I later slipped out of the course as Guys were keen to have a bigger role for their own people.

A few years later, Stephen Evans of the London mentioned that he was now teaching this course, which had moved from Guys to St. Mary's, and doing it single-handed. He was finding this quite a strain, so I offered to teach half of it with him. I had it all prepared, after all, and I needed the money. I found myself back at it, this time in an airless basement in Paddington. At least the décor was more conventional! After a while, Stephen moved on and I found myself coordinator of statistics on this course, recruiting a couple of colleagues to help.

A few more years passed and ownership of what was by now the South Eastern Consortium (tomorrow the world) again changed hands, this time to St. George's. Less travelling for me, and by far the best teaching accommodation we had ever had, but my two trusty helpers quit. However, I recruited two more from George's itself, one of whom, Dr. Peacock, is here tonight. Subsequently, I passed the coordinator's baton to her and she dealt with the transfer to the M.Sc. programme. I continued to teach, however, until 2002-3, so I taught from the beginning in 1974 to the end, with a short break in the middle.

By comparison the rest of the M.Sc. programme is new stuff, even the M.Sc. in Health Sciences. I taught on that from the beginning, too, and when I finally passed the organisation of research methods and statistics to another (and, I freely admit, better) teacher, I became chair of examiners, continuing up to 2002.

Being here tonight reminds me of my own M.Sc. When I finished this at the age of 22, I swore never to do another exam as long as I lived, an oath I have kept, unless you count my Ph.D. viva and St. John's certificate. I am always impressed by those, like tonight's graduands, who carry on doing this sort of thing as grown-ups. Medics, in particular, seem to have a morbid love of the examination hall, which has long fascinated me.

I did my own M.Sc. as a full time student immediately after my first degree, mainly to avoid having to work for a living and to carry on the student life. Apart from my studies, all I had to do was demonstrate against the war in Vietnam, rewrite the Union constitution, and party. And I got a grant. Compare this to our graduands tonight, who did theirs while holding down a full time job and at a stage in life when they have spouses, families, or are in the process of acquiring same. As a good epidemiologist, I could not help but notice the very high incidence of pregnancy among our students. And they have to pay us for the privilege, too. Of studying, that is, not conception, which they do strictly on their own time. I have tremendous admiration for their determination and effort. However, they have one advantage over me: they know why they are studying what they study. They are far more highly motivated than I was and, I am certain, far more rewarding to teach in consequence. Teaching the St. George's M.Sc. students was always a pleasure. Their dissertations, too, were tremendously varied and fascinating. One which sticks in my mind from the Health Sciences M.Sc. was a randomised trial of acupuncture versus sham acupuncture for symptoms of early menopause. This demonstrated a significant improvement with acupuncture, to the surprise of both myself and the student: myself because I didn't think it could possibly work and the student because she didn't think the trial was good enough. But all it needed was a bit of statistical magic. Another I remember was of voting in general elections by psychiatric inpatients. This project had been very difficult to execute and the dissertation had failed the first time it was presented. I took over the supervision, because as chair of examiners my policy was that all resubmitting students should have the opportunity for a change of supervisor, myself. I found a very angry student. I can report that eventually he realised why it had failed, after he showed my line-by-line critique to his wife, who told him he should be ashamed of having submitted such a thing. Our spouses can be our sternest critics; I know mine is. He then produced an excellent piece of work, graduated, and, and this is the point of the story, a couple of years later asked me to give him a reference for a Ph.D.

Looking at the topics of tonight's M.Sc. graduands I see that this diversity continues, topics ranging from "Use of adrenaline in controlling bleeding in thrombocytopenic patients" to "Nursery nurses working with health visitors" to "Health promotion and health needs within a male prison setting". I hope that tonight's graduands will look back on their postgraduate teaching and learning with both pleasure and a sense of achievement and development that will empower them to progress, whether they use what they have learned in practice or decide to follow a research interest. If the latter, I hope they will continue with a Ph.D.

I never regretted doing my own Ph.D., which I did do part-time as a working man, mostly while here at St. George's. Now I knew what I wanted to do and why, and got a lot more out of it. I also conceived during it (or as close to that as a man can get) and my wife told me "If you don't finish that Ph.D. before the baby is born, you never will!" and she was right! Well, I did, and the baby is now writing up his Ph.D., when he's not partying. I remember completing it with great pleasure, and continually try to encourage those coming after me to do the same. Whether done straight after a first degree or later as a mature student, I think a Ph.D. is a wonderful training both in research and in independent working. As with the M.Sc. dissertations, the topics are wide-ranging, coming both from the laboratory ("Insulin-like growth factor binding proteins as co-ordinators of human follicular function") and the community ("The natures of memories of violent crime in young offenders").

Its graduate students are the crowning achievement of a university. It is a great pleasure to see so many successful graduands here tonight and I hope you will join me in congratulating them all and wishing them every success in the future.

Back to Some full length papers and talks.

Back to Martin Bland's Home Page.

This page is maintained by Martin Bland.
Last updated: 23 March, 2004.

Back to top.