February 24, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

I, Science News Editor Madeleine Openshaw talks with Robert Winston about his upbringing, career and the reason he went into science communication.

As fresh-faced students on the Science Communication MSc here at Imperial College, last October we were instructed to go forth and practice interviewing members of the general public. It was on our way back from the Science Museum, where our group had just been ejected for talking to museum-goers without permission, that we bumped into Lord Robert Winston. Zoom recorders in hand, with headphones dangling around our necks… we promptly let him walk right past us. As soon as he had done so we debated whether we should have stopped him, and eventually decided to shamelessly run after him. By the time we had caught up, however, he was already stepping into a black cab on Exhibition Road. That afternoon we recorded a short radio piece lamenting the time we almost met Robert Winston.

What was it about our near-meeting that got us so excited? Lord Winston is a familiar face around the Imperial Campus, holding the position of Professor of Science and Society and Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies at the College. He is also well-known from the television, having presented numerous landmark documentary series on the BBC since the 1970s. During the 1980s and 1990s, he was commonplace on our radios and televisions not only as a presenter but as a controversial and outspoken supporter of in vitro fertilisation. Elected as a labour peer in 1995, he has been influential in the House of Lords, chairing their Select Committee on Science and Technology and vice-chairing the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. Quite a lot to fit in alongside a clinical and research career as a pioneering fertility specialist, with over 300 academic publications. And that’s before mentioning his important affiliation with the Genesis Research Trust, his involvement in the Royal College of Music, or the UK Stem Cell Foundation. Pretty exciting stuff for a bunch of aspiring science communicators.

Six months after almost meeting him, Robert Winston agreed to be interviewed for I, Science. We covered an impressively broad range of topics, including early childhood ambitions, the hierarchical nature of medicine, the time he quit medicine to become a theatre director (as well as the valuable life lessons it taught him), and ending with a long rant about the de-humanising nature of practicing medicine in today’s NHS. Oh, and we talked about science communication a bit along the way…

We start the interview by discussing his first scientific inclinations “At the age of seven, I told my parents I wanted to be a famous scientist.”, he remarks. “I have no idea why I said that. A child of seven doesn’t really produce rational thoughts. Now I think that celebrity and fame can be a bad thing. It’s wrecking, really.” He was soon on course to achieve that aim. “I went to one of those rather high-powered private schools, on a full scholarship because we couldn’t afford the fees. I didn’t perform well at first but ended up securing a place at Cambridge University to study Natural Sciences. Then I had a panic because I thought I’d be looking down a microscope for the rest of my life. So instead I decided to study Medicine, and of course ended up looking down microscopes rather a lot”. The Cambridge years were followed a difficult time as a junior doctor.

As a junior doctor, I was working for a famous surgeon capable of opening any orifice in the body. In those days, there wasn’t anything a surgeon couldn’t do according to the surgeon. I have never been a pushy individual; I’ve always been a bit timid. I remained deeply unhappy as a junior doctor for three or four years. Also, it destroyed a relationship.” There was clearly a problem with the way medicine worked. “There was a clear recognition in my mind that medicine was far too authoritarian. After four years I left and took a play up to the Edinburgh Festival. It got massive coverage, but there was a moment on the last night when I told the leading actress that she was fantastic and way over the top. She was furious at me, even though that was the way I wanted her to play it. I thought, you know what? I’ve enjoyed doing this, but I think I should be doing something that I’m really qualified to do.”.

The Edinburgh play would turn out to be of significant importance for his future trajectory. “Taking a play up to Edinburgh had a very important influence on my career. It taught me how to lead a team and how to listen. It taught me how different people communicate in different ways and how you can use that to get a message across. It helped me to communicate concepts through metaphor, and it helped me to write. And it made me realise that nobody is infallible”.

But medicine was and is still his speciality, and he soon began working in the field that has defined his career. “I was interested in women’s health primarily because you’re dealing with well patients who aren’t going to die on you. I also realised I was in an area where very few people were interested in research. If you’re not brilliantly clever, it’s always worth considering going into an area where there isn’t a lot of competition. When I eventually took over the infertility clinic at Hammersmith Hospital, a senior consultant at the hospital asked me why on earth I wanted to run the futility clinic. This conversely sealed my interest in the area”. The NHS has never been particularly interested in promoting research. So many bright young doctors wanting to combine research with clinical work find that the NHS takes over their whole day and they don’t have enough time for anything else”.

He never abandoned science communication, though, and soon he found himself involved in a project that would make his name familiar among the general public. “In 1974, I was visited by the commissioning editor of the Horizon series at the BBC. I found myself helping to write and present the surgical part of a new programme called ‘Predictions’. Looking back, it was complete crap, but it led on to other projects. ‘Human Body’ was watched by one third of the population and won three Baftas. I remember after the first show I was shopping in Regent Street and taxi drivers were stopping and hooting. It was astonishing.”

And what about his other shows? “I was initially a luddite about ‘Child Of Our Time’. I didn’t believe it would be of any use at all. At the first rehearsal for the live transmission it was an absolute shamble. We decided to bring my 16-year-old son in to co-present, and it saved the show. We ended up following 25 children over several series. I found myself getting very close to them. Three of them have done work experience in the lab at Hammersmith Hospital, and one of them is hoping to study astrophysics at Imperial College. I feel a little bit influential there.”

It was not at all an easy task to embark upon. “Doing this kind of science communication was hugely unpopular with everybody in my field. They all thought it was self-promotion, which it really wasn’t. I became more and more convinced that it was an important thing to do. I used to be averagely arrogant. However, I finally came around to the fact that arrogance is very unhelpful if you really want to communicate. Humility is much more respected.”

His upbringing was very helpful for dealing with the tensest moments of his career. “There was a time when I was on every single news outlet. I was arguing in favour of IVF against the far right and the Catholic Church. I think what really helped was my declaration of being an Orthodox Jew. I think that really stunned them. Having been force-fed Hebrew at the age of 7 turned out to be quite useful”.

What does he think about the future of medicine? “Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto’ – I am a human: nothing human is alien to me. That’s a quote from the Roman playwright Terence. It’s a good way to think about medicine, science communication, and life in general. The real risk we have at the moment in medicine in particular is losing our humanity. We talk about personalised medicine, but it’s bonkers. It’s actually impersonalised medicine, because what we’re doing is looking up results on a computer screen rather than looking at the face of the patient”. Empathy with the patient is essential, he explains. “To be able to put yourself in someone else’s skin is really important. I think it’s wonderful to choose a career in general practice, but of course it’s massively difficult because you’re going to have a continual stream of patients sapping away at your virtue and humanity. How do you deal with that? It’s sad really, I don’t think Jeremy Hunt understood that at all, neither did Andrew Lansley, despite being married to a GP. And I don’t think the Department of Health really understands it either”.

Interview by Madeleine Openshaw, junior doctor and student on the Science Communication MSc at Imperial College

Banner image: Andy Miah, Flickr