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Reflections: Vaccines and a grandfather

Adrian Poole, Fellow for Communications at Trinity and Emeritus Professor of English Literature, was inspired by Professor Huw Price’s Reflections and the current public health situation to consider afresh his grandfather’s life.

I’m sure others have been moved by Huw Price’s wonderful reflections on being ‘locked down down under’ to think about how they have got to where they are. Both literally and existentially. Like most Trinity Fellows I am holed up nearer to College than Huw in Sydney. I am merely a few miles away in the Fens. But Huw’s miniature memoir has prompted fresh thought about the debt to my forebears, in particular my redoubtable grandfather.

To the one on my mother’s side, an Edinburgh lawyer and himself the child of a Peterhouse don, I owe the large presence of books in my life (literally enough, in several shelves’ worth). But it is the other, Leopold Thomas Poole, a medical man in the army, on whom the experience of the last few weeks has led me to fasten.

Vaccines played a significant role at two moments in his life. In 1938, when he was 50 years old, his elder son contracted polio. This was my father Lawrence, a teenager at an English boarding school – like the children of so many families in the armed forces abroad. He had been born in Lahore in 1922.

Leopold Thomas Poole, by Walter Stoneman bromide print, January 1942 NPG x163367 © National Portrait Gallery, London

The NHS website tells us that cases of polio fell dramatically when routine vaccination was introduced in the mid-50s. It’s still present in parts of the world but not the UK.  Famous historical victims have included Sir Walter Scott and Franklin D. Roosevelt. And Tony Gould, himself a sufferer, has written an illuminating history, A Summer Plague: Polio and its Survivors (Yale University Press: 1997)

But all this was no use to my father in 1938. Nor his parents, who attended him in his iron lung on a car journey from London to their home in the Scottish borders that became a family legend. Young Lawrence survived to go to Edinburgh University, qualify as a lawyer, and father me, before dying at the age of 30 from the consequences of the polio. The vacancy left in my life was filled by his father and mother; their home became my home.

The author’s father, Lawrence Poole, two years after contracting polio, in 1940. Photo: Adrian Poole, family album

The second occasion on which vaccines or their absence featured in my grandfather’s life was recorded in an obituary in the British Medical Journal for May 1965, the year he died.

Towards the end of World War II he had taken a leading role in the production of a vaccine for the scrub typhus fever that was causing large numbers of casualties among the troops in the jungles of South-East Asia. One sentence in particular resonates now: ‘In the face of many difficulties bulk supplies of vaccine were prepared in record time.’ But then the war with Japan ended, abruptly. And the vaccine was never used.

I have omitted to say that he was at the time director of pathology at the War Office. He is to my knowledge the only member of the family to feature in the National Portrait Gallery, a formal photograph from 1942. In the world at large ‘the General’ is supposed to have inspired fear and trembling; in the family too, though to me he was always gentle, to a fault.

There is a happier story, recorded in a BMJ article in 1979, of the role he played in the conclusion to the war in Europe. It’s entitled ‘Gonorrhoea – a question of tactics’. In 1943 the military high command desperately wanted to get their hands on a new-fangled drug called penicillin. Their boys in North Africa were in no fit state to invade Italy, for reasons the title of the article indicates.

But the drug was in short supply, and there were plenty of gallant wounded men who needed it. Imagine the public outcry if, as the BMJ writer puts it, ‘some scallywags received it to relieve them of the discomforts their own indiscretions had brought on them’. So advice was sought from on high.

The civil servants were equivocal, but there came back a marginal note on the file in green ink: ‘This valuable drug must on no account be wasted. It must be used to the best military advantage.’ Not a completely clear directive but Churchill’s hand. General Poole decided he knew what this meant and declared that he would himself ‘carry the can’. He authorised the use of penicillin for the troops in North Africa. There were no political repercussions. The rest is history.

Leo Poole had a younger son, my uncle Geoff, who devised an ingenious wheelchair and other gadgets to assist his disabled elder brother. He would have made a fine engineer but his father would have none of it. He was compelled into the medical profession and became a beloved GP in the Scottish Borders; he died in 2015.

The wonders of Skype and Zoom mean that I can keep in touch with his children, my cousins. And we have been doing so, every Sunday. One of them lives in the south-west of Scotland and two in Cumbria. The fourth, who followed her father to become a doctor and made her career in the USA, is in Colorado. She is the only member of the family so far to have tested positive for Covid-19.

But as I write, her symptoms are fading. There is good hope that we shall see each other again, in person.

Leopold Poole, top right, in a family photo of 1910. Photo: Adrian Poole, family album

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