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Profile: Christopher Bateman reflects on his Oxford experience 60 years on

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As a long retired alumnus of Oxford, Christopher Bateman has borne witness to decades-worth of change at this university, the world of medicine and British society as a whole. After studying medicine at University College from 1955 and clinical training at St Thomas Hospital, London from 1959, Christopher qualified as a doctor in 1962. Generously lending an hour of his Easter Sunday to discuss his career as a consultant haematologist, we launched into a conversation about just what has stayed the same, and the medical innovation today we now unintentionally and unthinkingly take for granted.

Christopher Bateman has borne witness to decades-worth of change at this university, the world of medicine and British society as a whole.

Christopher remembers that his first years of Oxford were not plain sailing, and recalls the trials of adjusting to the workload. “I didn’t do very much work because I was enjoying myself while growing up rather quickly – I failed a few first year exams”. Medicine was, and still is, infamously devilish, and even then the first two years were a “hard grind and necessary evil”, jam packed with lab work and lectures (a slavish schedule alien to me as a humanities layabout, but I knowingly nodded along anyway). University was not just scholastic slog however, and the fun of hockey features fondly in his memories. A real education were hockey tours to Wales, where he “learnt quite a lot about how to drink beer”, and his team matched fun-loving outings with a win of the inter-college cup in 1958. High jinks with Welsh beverages proved to be excellent warm up for the long existent art of sconcing. However, when I mention pint races, it turns out generationally standards have slackened from the commitment of previous undergraduates to the cause: “ours was 2 ½ pints! Some people used to train their larynx so they could open their oesophagus and drink without swallowing”. But on reflection perhaps, and maybe even more wisely, this now “might be banned”.

In other ways, Oxford’s apparent changelessness is an illusion, and the false timeless impression is a product of still-going tradition. The student population was still scarred from the Second World War, and Christopher remembers that upon his arrival “roughly 80% had done national service”. Reportedly after recent reunions and returns, aesthetically and atmospherically the “character is still the same” but, regretfully Christopher disapproves of our new standard, or shamefully lower standard, of dress, which “is by far worse – you’re all really scruffy! Looking around the quad, you were all really scruffily dressed. We wore jackets and ties almost all the time”. When I mention I might know people who turn up to tutorials in their pyjamas, he laughs and quips “, that should be banned”. In the glorious golden age before the tense wait for termly student loans, he recalls that he “didn’t have to pay any tuition fees” although battels were still a drain on student bank accounts. Christopher also remembers how he “joined the Union, but didn’t last long there”. Unlike modern day star-studded line-ups, notable figures couldn’t travel easily to visit in order to speak at the Union. “In the mid 50s, people didn’t nip here and there like they do now – if they wanted someone to debate, it was quite a palaver to get them there – the roads and railways were bad, and petrol rationing had only just finished”. Rewording the dubious wisdoms of Wikipedia for a last minute essay didn’t exist as a bail out or shortcut for work: “plagiarism wasn’t a word anyone knew of because it didn’t happen. There weren’t many journals, and you didn’t have easy access to them anyhow – plagiarism is a totally modern invention”.

This portrait of Oxford as simultaneously changing and unchanged is not the same story for the medical field. Developments after the Second World War revolutionised treatments unrecognisably and many theories and dogma which Christopher slaved to learn as a student became grossly outdated in his later years as a doctor. The fast-track progress in the mid-century due to antibiotics, steroids and evolution of medical theory meant that by the 1960s, “medicine was euphoric – there’d been so many advances since the war”. Optimism was high, and “so many diseases that had been untreatable became treatable, that many people thought it was only a matter of time before we got rid of all diseases”. The attitude among doctors was that they could now achieve anything – which looking back was arrogant, but at the time it seemed understandable”. However, this spirit of potential infallibility led to an inadvertent avoidance of terminally ill patients: “when people were dying, [doctors] thought they had failed so they put these people in a corner behind a screen, and their needs were not considered”. This situation was the spur for Cicely Saunders, who was trained as a nurse and social worker and later qualified as a doctor, to found the hospice movement.

A&Es were also worlds away from their bustling modern day perceptions. Drug addict patients were unknown. It wasn’t until the mid 60s as a resident he came across anybody who had taken drugs, and Christopher remembers no recreational drugs at all in the universities at that time. Living conditions in London were the main determinant of workload. During the London fogs, hospitals were overwhelmed by patients with respiratory failure. Christopher recalls that, unbelievably “the smog in London was sometimes so dense you couldn’t drive a car or see five yards in front of you”. During a walk home during a smog, he recollects “it was hurting to breathe, so I put a handkerchief over my mouth to help my breathing. When I got back to our flat, the handkerchief was bright red because of the sulphur in the smoke”. It is worth bearing in mind as battles begin for new air laws in the capital that Christopher considers “probably the most important bit of legislation in this country since the war, from a health point of view, was the Clean Air Act”.

Christopher recollects Dahl as “being abrupt, a bit frightening, – he’d done his homework, had an arsenal of questions to make us justify the treatment we recommended…”

Medicine was also marked personally for each doctor by patients, and I inquire about his time at the bedside of children’s author, Roald Dahl. Unfortunately without the quick fix offered by George’s Marvellous Medicine, Christopher recollects Dahl as “being abrupt, a bit frightening, – he’d done his homework, had an arsenal of questions to make us justify the treatment we recommended – when he had assessed you and decided you were okay, his attitude changed , he was very friendly and we got on really well. He was an impressive and unforgettable man”. Christopher also remembers looking after the man and mind behind Scalextric, Fred Francis – “he was just good fun”.

As our interview winds down after a whistlestop tour through a formidable, and seemingly enjoyable, career, Christopher offers a few words of wisdom: “Make use to the full of all the other opportunities that Oxford offers you, because quite honestly it doesn’t matter much what degree you come out with – it hardly matters unless you’re going on to be an academic. The people I reckon have gone on to be the most successful in life have embraced the wider Oxford environment, and have contributed, so make use of all the other opportunities that you are lucky to have available to you.”

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