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Saturday, 31 December 2016

Setting a thief to catch a thief

I've been seriously busy, so here's a piece I prepared earlier.


When I was overseas ten years back, I had fun, but I was also working — gathering information for writing projects in hand, but I ended up in London the day that England was eliminated from the World Cup. It was a hot day, I was in Earl's Court in a pub with a stuffed kangaroo, and firm intentions of making the British Library on the Monday. I never made it, but that was another story.

Sunday, though, was a different matter, and I met both my goals. I had some unfinished business in Chelsea, left over from 1993. Then, I had failed to see inside Carlyle's house or the Chelsea Physic Garden, though I found a rare statue of William Huskisson, the first man to be run over by a train. So I went back to Chelsea, knowing that this time I would see all three — if I could find Mr. Huskisson.

I took off across-country (as much as one can in built-up London), passing Chelsea Pensioners and other curiosities, following a set of signs to Carlyle's House that were surely created to confuse potential German paratroopers in World War II, but I eventually got there, just after they opened.

I told the lady I wanted to see the chair, assuming she would know that I mean the one that Jenny sat in before jumping up to kiss Leigh Hunt. If that means nothing, it's a reference to a poem that Leigh Hunt wrote:

Jenny kiss'd me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I'm weary, say I'm sad,
Say that health and wealth have miss'd me,
Say I'm growing old, but add,
Jenny kiss'd me.

Apparently only a few people recall the story, but the guardian knew it, and we admired the chair, which regrettably, I could not photograph, due to some grotesque administrator with mad notions about copyright. I looked around, recalled the venomous comment that "it was good of God to allow Mr and Mrs Carlyle to marry, thus making only two people unhappy, not four" and chided myself for recollecting it.

Then I took me off to the Chelsea Physic Garden (http://www.chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk/) which was created as a place where doctors and others (physicians as they were dubbed then) could come to see the plants that were of known or assumed medicinal value.

After hearing an interview that Robyn Williams played on ABC Radio National's The Science Show, I knew that there were some beds of poisonous plants, and I had a professional interest in those.

Poison is a funny thing: people are scared of it, and when I say I am interested in poisons, people look at me oddly. I feel a bit like Jo in Little Women, whose enthusiasms led her into deep waters:

"Eager to find material for stories, and bent on making them original in plot, if not masterly in execution, she searched newspapers for accidents, incidents, and crimes. She excited the suspicions of public librarians by asking for works on poisons."

Jo, of course, is a slightly disguised Louisa May Alcott, so it probably happened just as she said — I can certainly believe it. But like Jo, my interest is benign, because I am interested in the good poisons, like antibiotics, disinfectants and other medical objects that are more lethal to the bugs than they are to us.

So I rolled into the garden, looked at the map, and asked where the poison beds were. I got one of those looks, until I explained that I am an Australian botanist who writes (among other things) about poisons. The guide took her finger off the panic button, and showed me where to find the carefully unmarked bed.

It was pretty standard fare, but I went away satisfied, having seen a couple of plants in the flesh, as it were, that I had only known from illustrations, as well as nodding to quite a few old friends.

The point (which I always get to) was that I know and knew that poisons are used to fight many things. I know also that sterile maggots are sometimes used to clean up necrotic tissue around wounds, and that we use leeches still. I have even heard of people taking worms to treat Crohn's disease, and I know about a 19th century man who used bacteria against cancer — I will get to him some other time.

Most of the 19th century pharmacopoeia contained mercury, arsenic or some other virulent element, and even today, most medicines are dangerous in large doses (mind you, 200 kg of potatoes or a hundred cups of coffee will also kill you — they key is the dosage).

But people taking bacteria to eliminate parasites sounded like a new one, so when I heard about this, I went burrowing. And found the lead was a bit wrong. My informant had also missed that the bacterium is one that is well-known around the traps, because a toxin from the bacterium is used in many pest-resistant plant species, like GM cotton.

According to a report a few years back in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (I never throw old notes away), bacterial proteins were being used to counteract hookworm. A protein produced by the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, given orally to laboratory hamsters infected with hookworms was as effective in eliminating the parasites, curing anaemia and restoring weight gain in the hamsters as one of the drugs currently recommended to treat infections in humans.

The protein, called Cry5B, targets both developing, or larval, stages and adult parasites, as well as impairs the excretion of eggs by female worms, said the researchers at Yale and UCSD.

I call it nifty.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Christmas in Australia is different

With ten days to go, we are in the run-up. We have seen a night of record heat, the cicadas are singing, and my friends are sharing stuff, like this Fred Dagg (John Clarke) carol:

We three kings of Orient are 
One on a tractor, two in a car 
One on a scooter 
Tooting his hooter 
Following yonder star
Oh, oh 
Star of wonder 
Star of light 
Star of bewdy, she'll be right 
Star of glory, that's the story 
Following yonder star . ..

My thanks to Toby Fiander for that, and also for finding me a link to Clarke's A Child's Christmas in Warrnambool, a parody on Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas in Wales. That reminded me of a radio talk I gave, more than 20 years ago, that was somewhat inspired by Thomas. It went out on ABC Radio National on the Ockham's razor program, which I have been appearing on since 1985. Some of the scripts can be found here.

I was about to add it here, but I found that I got there before me. Twice.

First, there is this: An Australian Christmas, posted in 2012.

Then there was A merry Christmas to all my readers in 2014.

I don't think there's much to add, really, except that my favourite Australian Christmas carol is here.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

The jolly Hobart parson

This affable bloke is on my list for a more detailed treatment at some stage.  One of the reasons that it won't be too soon is that another book has been given the green light.  More on Australian Backyard Earth Scientist in my next post.  Probably.  It's written, I am cleaning up the 5th draft, so there are probably only three more to go before I get back to playing.

When Robert Knopwood was 8, his father died, leaving massive debts which required that part of the family estate be sold. He went to Cambridge to study for the ministry, but got in with the “hunting and shooting set”. By the time he was ordained as a priest, he was heavily in debt, and had to sell half of his property in 1789, and he must have continued in those ways, because in 1795, he had to sell the remainder.


With no income, he served wherever he could, and was in the West Indies before becoming David Collins’ chaplain as Collins set out to establish a colony in Port Phillip Bay. This was not a success, and Collins took the whole colony off to the Derwent River, establishing Hobart. Knopwood remained in Van Diemen’s Land until his death in 1838.

They were not all happy years, because in spite of getting a number of land grants, Knopwood had no money sense at all, and he was continually hounded by creditors. His diary reveals that he was genuinely ill for many years, but his capacity for liquor was such that people usually assumed his frequent indisposition was alcohol-related.

All the same, until 1819, he ministered to a parish that stretched all the way to Port Dalrymple (Launceston), and his life was by no means horrid. Manning Clark said that Knopwood “… drank wine, smoked a pipe, hunted, fished, and enjoyed the world hugely …”.

Clearly, he fitted in well in a colony where the governor (Collins) had a convict mistress. In Sydney, Lachlan Macquarie had a low opinion of Knopwood.

There was one affair which may have accounted for this: it involved a ship called Argo, 19 barrels containing 2800 gallons, about 12 700 litres, of spirits referred to as “arrack”, and probably made from rice. This had been smuggled ashore, and when it was seized, Knopwood in his role as magistrate, became officially involved. This may have hurt him, because the common gossip at the time was that Knopwood had a hand, and perhaps an interest, in the affair.