It all began in England. It’s funny how you can look back at your life and find distinct times that mark the beginning of events, some that took days or weeks to experience and others years. Often it is harder to see the end. But for this chapter of my life, England was definitely the beginning. We were a young, ambitious family full of dreams when Larry was offered a position at the University of Nottingham, School of Agriculture in England. He had just received his PhD in animal physiology from Virginia Tech University in 1990, and we jumped at the chance to live and work overseas.
England was even more beautiful than I imagined.With a population of almost forty-eight million in an area the size of Alabama, the amount of farmland and open spaces was startling. Centuries-old rock walls surrounded beautiful rolling green hills, and white sheep dotted the pastures. It was August—sunny and glorious—and I instantly fell in love with the country.
The campus for the School of Agriculture was located in a charming rural area of the East Midlands, twelve miles south of the city of Nottingham. Larry’s contract provided a house for us, but it wasn’t ready when we arrived in the small village of Sutton Bonington. Since the students were still on summer break, the university temporarily moved us into a dorm—our own dorm. Our children (Francis was five years old, Heather four, and Jackie three) loved telling people we lived in a big house with twenty-two bedrooms, twelve “loos,” six showers, four bathtubs, and one tiny kitchen.
Sutton Bonington was originally two settlements that melded in medieval times and as a result had two parishes. St. Michael’s was the “newer” church as it was only 600 years old, compared to St. Anne’s, the 900-year-old church located at the other end of our village. We enrolled Francis in the local primary school, and Heather attended St. Michael’s preschool. Too young to go to school, Jackie spent her days following me around, tugging at my skirt, asking, “What are we going to do next, Mummy?” (All the children had quickly acquired the local English dialect.) I tried to keep her busy: explaining the different plant names as we worked in the garden, putting puzzles together, playing games, and showing her how to bake cookies. One morning shortly after we bought our first computer, I opened a program entitled PC Paintbrush and encouraged her to learn how to use it and to call me when she was done. As I left the room I thought, “This should buy me half an hour to get some housecleaning done.”
When Larry came home for lunch, Jackie’s eyes were still fixed on the computer screen. “Look, Daddy. I can draw lines!” She had figured out how to use the pencil icon and had drawn a series of lines on the screen.
“Time for lunch,” I said.
“No. I don’t want lunch,” Jackie stubbornly replied.
“You can’t sit in front of that all day,” Larry told her.
“I’m still learning,” she insisted.
By that evening Jackie had a computer-generated drawing of a yellow boat with a blue sky. We were amazed. “Time to get her into school,” I told Larry.
Luckily Heather’s preschool was willing to accept Jackie early because the girls were very close, not only in age but as friends, and would take care of each other. This now left me with plenty of free time. I spent my days visiting with our wonderful new friends, teaching piano, walking, reading, and happily restoring the garden and discovering its hidden features: a stone patio outside the kitchen door, a rock wall around the border, and stone steps leading to an upper terrace.
As much as I enjoyed my free time, I was soon bored and began visiting Larry more often. Larry was hired to study the prolificacy of Chinese Meishan pigs and teach laparoscopic artificial insemination. For him it was the perfect combination of research, teaching, and hands-on animal work. He was an incredible teacher, had a very steady hand for surgery, and was very gentle. I loved watching him work in the laboratory and never tired of our long discussions. When Larry’s lab technician became pregnant and had to quit, I jumped at the opportunity to take her place. Larry spoke with the head of the department, Professor Eric Lamming. “Prof,” as we called him, was a tall, handsome man in his midsixties with a full head of white hair and sparkling blue eyes. He was quick with a joke, and I liked him immediately.
“What experience does she have?” he asked Larry.
“None, exactly. But her father is a biochemist, and she grew up in his lab. Plus, she’s a quick learner.”
“We’ll give her a try, but if she can’t prove herself in two weeks, we’ll have to hire someone else.”
Larry ran back to his office where I was waiting. “You’re in!” he told me.
My lessons started during lunch that very same day. Larry taught me about the reproductive system, the different hormones and their functions, and what he and his team were trying to measure and why. The next day was my first day in the lab, and I loved it: the equipment, the smells, and wearing the lab coat all reminded me of wandering through my father’s laboratories as a child. I listened intently and took extensive notes as Larry explained the steps for measuring progesterone using a radioimmunoassay, a technique to quantify minute amounts of a hormone or drug using a radioactively labeled hormone to bind to a specific antibody. Before I realized how much time had passed, it was time for tea. “You go ahead,” I told Larry as I continued to write in my notebook. “I want to work here for a while.”
“You can’t. No one misses morning tea,” he insisted. “It would be an insult to the others.” Our department was made up of an eclectic mix of scientists from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Larry explained how teatimes were opportunities to find out what our colleagues were working on, to coordinate with them, to relax, and, most important, to socialize. Sure enough, when we walked downstairs the tearoom was already buzzing.
After tea it was back to the lab. During lunchtime Larry and I would walk the stone pathways down to the village, past the thatched roof house near St. Michael’s church, past the King’s Head pub where the sounds of pint glasses clinking and smoke drifted out the open windows, and past the tiny front gardens overflowing with pastel-colored flowers. Sutton Bonington (population 1,600) was a long narrow village filled with ancient buildings reminiscent of a postcard you would send home with “Greetings from England!” written on the back. Beyond the newsagent and post office was Pasture Lane, a small grocery store that made “cobs” (sandwiches). Larry and I would order two cobs and a caramel square for dessert and sit on a bench eating our lunch in the warm sunshine, all the while chatting about my next assay. Then it was back to the lab.
I worked hard and turned out to be a great lab tech, so the university officially hired me. Once I had completed Larry’s projects, another researcher employed me as his lab assistant for a few months. Meanwhile, Professor Lamming was “retiring” as head of the department. The university retained him as professor emeritus, but his office had to be moved to an adjacent building. His current office was a disaster. I had extra time on my hands, so I offered to help him set up his new workplace. It took me three weeks to move and organize decades’ worth of material. One day I approached Prof and told him I wanted to be his secretary.
He laughed, “I don’t need a secretary.”
“Yes you do,” I responded bluntly, “and I would like to be it.”
“We’ll see,” he said, smiling.
Two days passed before Prof stopped me in the hallway, “I talked to administration,” he said, “and you have a job.” I was so happy, I hugged him.
We spent the first month or so adjusting to each other. Prof was accustomed to secretaries who were content to get his coffee, answer the phone, and type letters. I wanted to be more than a secretary; I wanted to learn.When Prof dictated letters, I questioned statements he made and asked him to explain things I didn’t understand. Science was in my blood, and Prof was involved in so many different intriguing projects: the reproduction of sheep and cattle, maternal recognition of pregnancy, interferon, and—what fascinated me most—BSE.
At the time, Britain was in the throes of the “mad cow,” or BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), crisis. BSE, a neurological disease that affects cattle, was first discovered in southern England in 1985. By 1990 thousands of cases were being diagnosed across the UK each month. British cattle exports were banned, beef prices plummeted, and farmers struggled not only with the loss of markets but with paltry compensation for animals slaughtered by the government.
Prof was head of the UK Animal Feedingstuffs Committee and a member of the European Union Scientific Veterinary Committee (SVC). These two committees advised the British and EU governments about matters relating to TSEs (transmissible spongiform encephalopathies), the class of diseases that includes BSE in cattle, scrapie in sheep, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in humans, chronic wasting disease (CWD) in deer, and others.
Scrapie has been known about for hundreds of years, CJD was first diagnosed in the early 1900s, and CWD was discovered in Fort Collins, Colorado, in the late 1960s. So, BSE was the “new kid” on the block. Because Prof had worked with sheep most of his professional life, he first taught me about scrapie. Scrapie received its nomenclature from one of its clinical signs: through excessive scraping and scratching the animal would lose its wool in large pieces. I learned that there are different strains of scrapie, that DNA testing can show genotypes of animals that are susceptible or resistant to scrapie, and that more than 90 percent of all cases occur in Suffolk and/or other black-faced sheep breeds.
Sheep flocks could be monitored for scrapie. If a flock was without symptoms and closed (no new female animals join the flock) for five years, the flock was considered scrapie-free. Curious to learn more about this ancient disease, I went through Prof ’s files and read every detail surrounding scrapie and the scrapie surveillance program. Prof was responsible for establishing the first government system to monitor and prevent scrapie. This system became European Union Directive 91/68.
Next I researched the feeding of meat and bonemeal to ruminants, because this practice was the suspected cause of BSE at the time. The rendering industry gained tremendous markets from the sale of glycerine (used to manufacture explosives) during the two world wars. Once the Second World War was over, the rendering industry’s focus shifted to further industrialization of rendering slaughterhouse waste, specifically using protein by-products from the animal-rendering industry in animal feed to improve growth rates and productivity of livestock operations. University research showed that increased protein in an animal’s diet resulted in greater productivity—dairy cows produced more milk and beef animals more muscle. Consequently, rendering companies created “meat and bonemeal” from the inedible remains of slaughtered animals, a product high in protein. Once this additive was tested on animals, studies confirmed that productivity improved, and it was marketed to farmers. The result? Forced cannibalism for vegetarian animals. Any concerns about the health effects of feeding animals back to herbivores were probably quickly silenced. “Just think how fast your cows will grow! The faster to market, the more money in your pocket!”
In the mid-1970s there were changes in the rendering process in the UK due to the oil crisis. To conserve fuel, the greaves (precursors to meat and bonemeal) were not heated to the temperatures previously required, and use of solvents that helped extract a higher percentage of the tallow were abandoned. Scientists theorized that the lower temperatures and lack of solvents allowed the BSE infectious agent to survive and spread through feed.
“But meat and bonemeal have been fed to ruminants around the world,” I told Prof one day. “Why aren’t cases of BSE springing up everywhere?”
No one, not even Prof, had an answer to this question.
“There had to be another cause,” I thought. The meat and bonemeal may have exacerbated the problem, but why were hundreds of cows contracting the disease weekly in Britain while only a few cases had ever been diagnosed in the rest of the world?