Gong Gong says

This is a posthumous blog of our father's (Lim Kok Ann) life. When our father passed away on 8 March 2003, he left behind an unpublished autobiography. We'd like to celebrate his life by sharing his autobiography through this blog.


"I have dredged these anecdotes from memory just to pass the time; if they amuse my grandchildren their purpose will have been served; if they provide any instruction, it will be a happy coincidence; that they are disjointed is probably to be expected.

Aurora was the name of my grandfather’s house in Kulangsu.   Amoy, where I spent the first five or six years of my life.   I still have vivid memories of events that took place when I was barely three years old.

Lim Kok Ann
October 1996"

Saturday, November 08, 2008

3.7 My first invention
Professor Wilson Smith, head of the Department of Bacteriology of UCHMS was an international authority on influenza viruses. To get a traineeship in his laboratory was not an easy thing and was made possible for me because of Hale’s influence. In the academic world, andespecially in England, much is achieved through “old boys networks”. One goes through the formalities of applying for a position, but the appointment comes because someone influential knew someone with the authority to say yes. “Kwansi” we say nowadays, though this term connotes some kind of nepotism or corruption which was not always the case.

When I had just joined the Medical College staff, my Uncle Robert passed through Singapore on his way to the United States and he gave mc some advice. The first was: “To be successful in research choose a topic ignored by others and make it your own specialty.” The second was: “Find the best man in your field of study; go to work for him for a while and suck his brains dry. Then, go and work for his greatest rival and suck his brains dry. You will then be ready to work on your own.” I was not in the position to do quite what Uncle Robert recommended, but being with Wilson Smith was a little step in the right direction.

Professor Wilson Smith put me to work with Dr. Margaret Edney, a staff member of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, who was on a staff-exchange appointment for post-doctoral experience. Wilson Smith had this to say before he passed me on to her: “Don’t publish anything on what you do here without letting me see it, and don’t mention my name without my permission.” Besides Marge Edney, other people I got to know well were Dr. George Belyavin, Senior Lecturer, who was Professor Hale’s junior before Hale went to Singapore, and Dr. Cohn Kaplan, a South African who did most of the bacteriological tests the department did for the hospital, and subsequently became Professor of Microbiology at Reading University. Belyavin took some trouble to tell me how the department was organized and was very interested to know how Hale was doing. He had a charming way of pulling my leg whenever I over-embroidered my stories, “Lim, I always knew that you are a most ingenious fellow.”

Marge Edney was the first Australian I got to know well and was typical of her people: friendly, frank and outspoken. There was not enough time for me to undertake an independent piece of research so I played the role of a technician and helped Marge in her project which required innumerable haemagglutination inhibition (HI) tests. Influenza viruses caused the clumping of fowl (chicken or goose) red blood cells but this activity was prevented (inhibited) by antiserum prepared against the virus thus enabling us to identify variations in influenza viruses.The test itself involved mixing various dilutions of the antiserum (1/10, 1/20/ 1/40 and so on) with a fixed amount of the virus and then adding a fixed amount of red blood cells, when clumping, if present, was easily recognized. In determining the result, described as the 50 per cent end-point, a little arithmetic was required that Marge did on a scratch-pad and with the help of a slide-rule. As I was a bit of a whiz at maths, the calculations were not difficult for me, only tedious, as dozens might have to be done daily. After I had been at it for a few weeks I wondered if the labour might be reduced by using some mechanical device such as a modified slide-rule but I could not make anything handy.

Note: in the days before hand-held calculators were available the slide-rule was an invaluable tool of the engineer and of those who had to do multiplication or division in a hurry. Such operations can be transformed to addition or subtraction by using logarithms. If we mark a ruler in lengths equivalent to logarithmic units, we may, by adding two such lengths, perform a multiplication, and by subtracting one length from another, perform a division.

Browsing through a bookshop one day, I came across a book entitled The Nomogram. The book had examples for graphical solution of many kinds of equations but the equation I had to solve was simply solved by a i-chart. Imagine the letter Z with the upper and lower arms, and the diagonal as well, marked off in units. The upper arm represented a, one of the results of a test, and the lower arm b, another result of the test. By joining the point representing a with the point representing b with a ruler, we find the solution where the ruler crossed the Z diagonal. Marge was no great shakes at maths and when she found my device required only a ruler she was delighted. The Z-chart seemed such an ingenious bit of work that I enlarged its scope and wrote it up for publication and having cleared it with Wilson Smith, submitted the paper to the Journal of Hygiene, the editor of which was Professor Spooner, one of my former teachers at the School of Hygiene. Spooner, too, was no maths expert, so he walked over to our laboratory to see how the chart was used. “What would you do,” Spooner asked Marge who happened to be using the Z-chart at that moment, “if I took this away from you?” Marge promptly replied, “I would cut my throat!” Upon that, Spooner accepted the paper for publication. Any hope that I might have won the Nobel prize for inventing this cute device was frustrated by the appearance within a few years of inexpensive programmable electronic calculators. If Marge had one of these she could have got the solution she wanted by keying a then b and would not have needed even a ruler!

Marge Edney was always full of cheer and claimed that she had only three interests in life: Mice, Men and Mountains, the order of priority depending on the season of the year! She was one of the few Westerners who called me “Ann” (“an” as in “wander”) and constantly complained of the conservative way the British did things and kept on telling me, “Ann, you just have to visit us at the Hall Institute to see how things should be done.” It took me a while to understand that Walter and Eliza Hall were two people who had endowed the Institute and that the word “Hall” was a name and not a place. I decided to take her advice when I learned that Wilson Smith’s greatest rival was Sir Macfarlane Burnet, the director of the Hall Institute who was an authority not only in influenza viruses, but also on the immunology of tissue transplantation. Time and time again, Wilson Smith would thumb through a recent publication by Burnet and say indignantly, “That’s my idea he has stolen”. It was clear that my education would not be complete until I had tapped Burnet’s brains.

Sometime in 1953, I was invited to attend an ACS Old Boys Dinner where I met Toh Chin Chye, a Raffles College graduate and had a long talk with him. I did not know that Chin Chye was the leader of the Malayan Forum, and only found out years later that this was a discussion group formed by anti-colonial students. I believe now that Chin Chye was cautiously sounding out my political leanings with the view asking me to join the Forum. Being naive, I had no hesitation in showing my socialist sympathies and anti-colonialist feelings. I advised him, however, that university teachers should not dabble in politics, that is, actively propagate their views to students. “Besides,” I said, “we would only get shot at by both sides.” Chin Chye must have revealed somewhat his own sympathies, and I wanted to tell him to be careful. “We would be attacked by the colonialists on one side and by the communists on the other”. How was I to know that I was speaking to the future Chairman of the People’s Action Party? I believe that there and then Toh Chin Chye wrote me off as politically useless, and chicken-hearted, to boot. After we both returned to Singapore we never met socially though our work places were on adjoining floors, and to his credit, I never heard of Chin Chye talking politics to his students.

Any possibility that I could have joined up with Chin Chye’s political allies, Keng Swee, Kim San,, Barker and Kuan Yew, all my contemporaries, his presumed adverse report not withstanding, were scotched by my known friendship with Chong Eu who had left the MCA and formed his own party, the Gerakan,in Penang in opposition to the UMNO.

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