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 When our father passed away on 8 March 2003, he left behind an unpublished autobiography.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

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

4:10 Visiting Scientist at NIH

In 1971 I took six month’s sabbatical leave to study slow viruses with Carleton Gajdusek who arranged an appointment for me as Visiting Scientist at the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Maryland, near Washington, D.C. The appointment was salaried on a daily basis, even to the extent that I earned paid leave and was paid double rates if I chose to work instead of taking leave. It was an exciting time for Carleton because it was soon after his first successful attempts to transmit kuru to chimpanzees, and he was trying to also transmit CJID in chimpanzees. Our three older children having already left the nest, Rosie and I brought Su I-Iui and Sing Yuen to Bethesda where we set up house in one of the quarters provided for Visiting Scientists. The children went to a local school, Rosie kept house and visited museums while I walked to Carleton’s laboratory nearby. It was a great experience for the children and I thought they would easily get over the cultural shock of changing school for a year, but I think Su Hui never recovered from the interruption to his Chinese lessons.

For a while I looked through Carleton’s recent publications to up-date myself on the current knowledge about slow viruses. In a couple of instances, the articles were in the final stage of preparation for submission to journals and I helped to proof-read the final draft and to double-check references. I did this, too, for Dr. Joe Gibbs, Carleton’s senior assistant and colleague who directed Carleton’s department during his long absences on field trips, and for Dr. Paul Brown, another senior assistant. I studied and helped to bring up-to-date the kuru transmission charts that showed the sources of materials injected into monkeys or chimpanzees and the subsequent passages. Carleton had organized a nation- wide collaborative project with American primate centres, mostly in zoos, whereby the Zoo took care of chimpanzees owned by Carleton’s department, most of which had been inoculated with brain suspensions from a variety of conditions thought to be due to slow viruses. For this trouble and expense, the zoos benefitted from the prestige of being described as a collaborator of the NIH, Bethesda, when they sought grants from their sponsors. Every few weeks Carleton would take me on a trip to visit one of these centres and I could sometimes identify an animal whose particulars I had just entered in a transmission chart. On a few occasions, Carleton sent me on trips to bring back brain biopsies from patients diagnosed as suffering from CJD, for his transmission experiments. One of these trips took me right across America to Santa Barbara near Hollywood, when I took some leave so as to play in a chess tournament.

Carleton shared a house in Chevy Chase, a suburb adjoining Bethesda with Dr. Joe Wegstein, a computer expert who was writing a program for the FBI that would digitalize finger-print data. Imagine that you have 100,000 photographs of wrong-doers on file and you want to match a photo of a suspect with your file. This can be done very quickly by codifying the various features on a face by which we normally describe people: colour of hair, colour of eyes, distance between the eyes, shape of nose, shape of chin, shape of ears, and so on. Finger-prints which never change, also have distinguishing features; for example, a finger-print may be an arch or a whorl, and certain lines may be split, and so on. Dr. Wegstein’s task was to decide what features would identify a finger-print and to codify these features. When the millions of finger-prints the FBI have on file were codified, a omputer could rapidly search its data base for a match with data sent in electronically from one of its many “customers”. In practice, once the finger-print is identified, it is retrieved from the micro-file and compared visually with the “request-print”.

Over the years Carleton had been adopting bright children of about ten years of age from the native tribes that he visited on field trips and bringing them to America to be educated at his own expense. It was his theory that children from primitive cultures could rapidly adapt to modem society and he proved this by putting Micronesian and New Guinean children through the American grade- school system and through college. Ultimately, most of Carleton’s adopted children went home well qualified to take leading positions in their community for Carleton was careful not to alienate them from their original cultures. Joe ran the household as a sort of “den-mother”, and disciplined arleton’s children strictly, ensuring that they did their home work properly and their share of house- hold chores. Thus he made up for Carleton’s easy-going ways, for Carleton treated his adopted children as adults, and tried by reasoning, and cajoling, to get them to do what they should do, which, being children, they sometimes did not.

At the last count, Carleton had over thirty adopted children, some of whom were married and had families of their own. Both Carleton and Joe were confirmed bachelors, and Carleton explained to me that because he did not want to give up his field-work which often placed him in life-threatening situations and he did not wish to have a wife who might be widowed any time.

I wound up my visit to the NIH by co-authoring a paper delivered by Carleton at the 1972 Pan -American Health Organization Conference in Washington, entitled, “Prospects of vaccines against slow viruses”. Carleton’s conclusions were that the prospects were poor because of the nature of slow viruses. He also waxed lyrical when he touched on the question whether aging was a virus disease and if so, would we wish to be vaccinated against old age. I helped to put the paper together by tidying up the transmission charts used for the paper to illustrate examples of transmission of slow viruses, and by checking the references. It was a privilege to share a publication with a future Nobel Laureate. I took the chance to take my reduced family to visit the Melnicks in Houston where I learned of the latest development with the LBM antiserum pools. Joe was almost ready to start making freeze -dried ampoules of antiserum pools for international distribution by WHO and it reminded me that genius was 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration; I had the inspiration and it was Joe who put in the perspiration.


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