It feels like it was a previous lifetime when I worked in the London Hospital, Whitechapel – now known as The Royal London Hospital. I was a Senior Medical Laboratory Scientific Officer which was such a mouthful, it was usually abbreviated to SMLSO – although that hardly trips off the tongue! I started work in the Microbiology Department and during my time there, I worked for three months, in what was then known as, the VD Reference Laboratory and would probably now be known as the STD Reference Laboratory and three months in the TB lab. My final post at the London was in the Virology Department which was situated in the Institute of Pathology, a building at the back of the hospital. I went back the other day to see if the building was still there and it is, although sadly it looks as though it is ready to be demolished. The red arrow in the photo shows the window, behind which I used to sit, doing complement fixation tests to look for antibodies to various viral infections and haemaglutination inhibition tests to look for rubella antibodies.
When I first started as a junior MLSO, we all wore the white coats everyone recognises and associates with scientists and doctors but there was a tendency to wear the coats undone leaving our own clothes vulnerable to contamination with bio-hazardous material. After a few years (and possibly a few spills and accidents), the design of the coats changed, to give better protection. The new and improved coats did up down the back, had high mandarin collars so our clothes and fronts were protected from spills etc. The coats had a breast pocket for pens and other small items and there was an enormous pocket in the front, like a kangaroo’s pouch which housed all sorts of bits and bobs a well trained MLSO might need.
Each Monday morning I took my colleagues’ lab coats to the hospital laundry and exchanged them for clean ones so we all started the week with fresh coats. Since the dirty coats could potentially be contaminated with viruses, I didn’t want to wander through the busy areas of the hospital, risking contaminating people, so I used to go to the laundry via a little-known route through the tunnels under the hospital. One end of the system of tunnels started under the Institute of Pathology and led directly to the laundry beneath the main hospital building. It was very rare that I met anyone in the tunnel although from time to time a tramp had wandered in and set up home there as it was warm and dry.
Quite often I used the tunnel to go between the lab and the hospital, particularly if it was raining so I didn’t get wet while crossing the road and walking through the hospital gardens. One particular day I remember in the tunnel was when the Queen came to the hospital to open the Alexandra Wing. Of course, I wasn’t on the list of people who would meet or even see the Queen although we did receive a memo telling us how to behave and not to call her ‘Marm’! I didn’t give the whole event much thought and that evening, I was surprised to see the hospital garden was packed full of people and I realised I was going to have difficulty getting into the main building and out the other side, so I thought I’d take a shortcut down into the tunnel, intending to come up near the laundry in the main building and avoid the crowds. When I got to the bottom of the stairs, people were coming towards me and I was asked to stand by the wall and wait. Seconds later, Queen Elizabeth came walking along with her entourage! I’m not sure where she was going but she was only a few feet from me when she passed. I’m also not sure anyone in my lab believed me the next day when I told them who I’d bumped into in the tunnel. I scarcely believed it myself!
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