Friday, October 20, 2006

'What will become of the myotonic goats?'

I have been thinking recently of one of my old profs. Professor Pat Merton was a distinguished physiologist and a pioneer of cybernetics. He was also a very funny man. When I arrived at Cambridge Pat Merton was one of those who made the strange new place feel like home.

He had a novel interview technique. One rather pompous and over-confident public school boy was shocked when in his entrance interview for medicine, Prof. Merton, noticing he had mentioned playing the cello on his CV (at the very bottom, he'd had 1 or 2 lessons) passed him a cello and asked for a tune. He did not get in.

Pat had an individual teaching style. In those days a lot of the teaching was carried out in small tutorial groups. I arrived early for one such tutorial and Prof. Merton issued a challenge that we both try to drink as many glasses of sherry as we could during the tutorial without the other students noticing. After surreptitiously finishing off 6 glasses of sherry in under an hour Prof asked me to read out my rather second rate essay. After I had, rather painfully, slurred through it he pronounced it rubbish. 'But I used all of your old papers Prof', I opined. 'I have changed my mind', he said, decisively.
Once I went to him worried that I had not done enough work for the forthcoming exams. 'You are here to be educated, not to pass exams', was his reply.

Always fiercely intellectual and resolutely eccentric, his lectures were a delight. His lecture on the balance organs of the ear involved the use of a live duck. If you got up early enough you could see him running around on the river bank trying to catch one.
His reaction to the news that the Cambridge vet school farm was to close was unique, 'but,what will become of the myotonic goats?'

They don't make them like that anymore.


Richard said...

Blimey, the Tennessee Fainting Goat. I remember those from when we were allowed to surf teh interwebs while working at the Ministry.

Molly Bloom said...

I love it when people describe a teacher or prof who has touched their world. Big up to the man who brings alcohol into the equation and actually says something like, 'You're here to be educated not pass exams.' Now, that's my kind of educator.

cello said...

How remarkable. You'd think that fainting at key moments would be an evolutionary faux-pas and lead to being eaten a lot.

But your Prof sounds amazing. Wait 'til Patroclus hears about him; she wants to be a cyberangel or something.

Remiman said...

The quote"'You are here to be educated, not to pass exams',"
is exceptional!
I'd like to use it from time to time with proper credit given to Prof. Merton, if you approve.

ziggi said...

so? what did happen to the myotropi ??? myoyyotop ... those falling over goats?

realdoc said...

richard: working at the ministry eh, tell all.
molly: great educators are the brickies of the palaces of the future
cello: hope you liked the namecheck, yes I think patroclus would like him. He was a friend of Alan Turing after all.
remiman: go right ahead
zig: don't worry the goats went to a good home.
The temptation must be very great to go boo!! whenever you go near them though. I don't think I could resist

Tattieheid said...

I love this post. He sounds like some rare, gifted, eccentrics I had the good fortune to meet in my youth. The education quote is timeless and should still apply today, pity it doesn't.

I'd love a couple of fainting goats. :)

Richard said...

Umm...the Rural Payments Agency; the part of Defra that occasionally gets in the news for staff members leaping off filing cabinets naked and not doing their job very well. Even though it's over 3 years since I left I am legally prevented from giving any more away about our office, where the only ones who actually did any work were the casuals because the other lot were usually off sick, as I actually signed the Official Secrets Act. Although those stories didn't actually surprise me.

Billy said...

Excellent stuff.

Tim Footman said...

My RE teacher did the sherry thing too. He said it was the only way to make school lunch bearable.

Why are the best teachers insane.

Carmenzta said...

I would never ever eat anything that just fell over on it's own, right? So I think it would be an evolutionary advantage to faint when startled.

Anonymous said...

Prof Merton is my grandfather! I just stumbled across this as I'm bored in the University of Glasgow's Library and started googling family members. It is so lovely to hear those anecdotes from a student of his (I know them all, except I was told it was an oboe the boy was given, but my aunt played the cello so it is probable).
He died in 2001, but I'm sure telling my family about finding this will make them laugh.
Emma Merton