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 When our father passed away on 8 March 2003, he left behind an unpublished autobiography.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 15, 2008

3:10 Carleton Gajdusek
One of the topics bandied about at tea-breaks was when Carleton would be returning from New Guinea where he was on a field trip. I pieced together subsequently the following story: Dr.Carleton Gajdusek was a staff member of the US Army Medical Research Team based in Washington and who was on a year’s staff-exchange visit. He had been due to arrive a couple of years ago, but his arrival had been delayed, first because he had been on a tour of European scientific institutions determining their equipment needs and handing out cheques on behalf of the Marshall Plan! Carleton had been given this task because of his wide knowledge of medical science and technology and because he was fluent in the German language. Another six months deferment was requested when Gajdusek was diverted to Iran to study the use of rabies antiserum in an out-break of rabies caused by wolves! Finally, his flight plans were received and his ETA (Expected Time of Arrival) re-confirmed. The Institute Chief Technician took the station-wagon to the Airport to meet Gajdusek but waited in vain for him to turn up. When the Chief Technician returned to the Institute in disgust he found Carleton having tea with the Institute staff. Carleton had not expected to be met and on arrival had taken a tram to the Institute. This story gave me an idea. When Carleton returned from New Guinea and came to the tea-room, Marge introduce me saying, “This is Dr. Lim from Singapore”, I sprang up and cried, “Fancy seeing you here, Carleton, how are you?” But Carleton was unfazed and knew it was a joke for he clearly recalled not having met me before.

Editor’s note: This is a bit of my Father’s humour; he enjoyed the contradiction of clearly remembering that something never happened.

Dr. Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, MID, specialised in paediatrics when he took his MD at Harvard University. Before that he had taken a PhD in Physical Chemistry and then in Virology as well. His special interest was anthropology, studying human behaviour, and he finally became Chief of the Laboratory for Studies of Child Development in Primitive People in the National Institute of Neural Disease and Stroke in the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, near Washington, D.C.. Carleton’s field trip to New Guinea was to observe the life of the Papuannatives and to collect blood samples for study of disease patterns. While at the Hall Institute he discovered that some human diseases was caused by an aberrant reaction of the body’s immune system to its own tissues, a condition now known as auto-immune disease.

Carleton taught me that scientific work is not confined to office hours. I met him one afternoon about five o’clock on the Institute steps coming in as I was leaving. “Coming to work?” I asked jokingly and was surprised when he said, “Yes,” taking my question seriously. To cover up my faux-pas, I asked if I could join bun and see what he was doing, for it occurred to me that I had not seen him much of him in the laboratory. It turned out that Carleton did all his tests at night when he was alone in the laboratory, dispensing with the services of a technician and fetching everything himself When his tests were done, he would put the test-tube racks in the fridge to be read the next day. “Sir Mac is puzzled,” Carleton commented with amusement, “how I could sit at my desk all morning browsing through journals and reading test results without doing any tests.” (Sir Mac was what the Institute staff called Burnet).

It was typical of Carleton’s informal approach to people that he knew everyone by their first names, excepting for Sir Mac who was much our senior. At first he called me Lim, as my British friends did, then Kok-Ann, when he learned that this was my label in Singapore. One day he came into the tea-room waving a journal and pointed to an article which said From the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. “Who is this Macdonald?” he asked, indicating an author’s name with the initial “H’. “That’s me!” cried Heather Macdonald, our electron microscopist. “Oh,” said Carleton and, to cover up his embarrassment, he pointed to another name and asked, “Then who is Edney?” To roars of laughter, Marge Edney piped up, “That’s me!“

In the last few weeks of my stay in Melbourne I returned to the laboratory after dinner to watch Carleton at work and to listen to his account of his life. He was an intimidating conversationalist, backing up his facts by quoting chapter and verse from the best authorities, and in recent science, often citing personal acquaintances. He never made jokes because he had enough amusing anecdotes about his large circle of colourful friends to tell without having to make use of imaginary characters.

A few days after I started visiting him at work Carleton asked me, as he was putting his things away, where I was staying. He shared an apartment about half an hour away by tram with some American Full bright Scholars and was thinking perhaps that I, too, might have had a longway to go to get home. “Come here,” I said to him, drawing him to a window and pointing down a side street, “I have a room there in a boarding house.”

Note: There was a secondary school next to the Institute. The boarding house took in students from out of town and they were on vacation. One of the students still living in, because he came from Malaya, became Dr Chai and joined the Department of Microbiology, University of Malaysia.

Carleton was amazed that I was enjoying what he thought an ideal set-up, to live next to his place of work. He asked if there was another room in the boarding house that he could have. There was not, but my room had two beds so I offered one to Carleton who then shared my room for two weeks and stayed on after I left. I would go to the Institute in the morning and do a full day’s work; return home about five in the evening and then go to early dinner with Carleton, and accompany him back to the Institute to see him work. I thought I had not met such an interesting and clever fellow in my life, apart from Chong Eu.


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