Read an Excerpt
Not from Guildford After All
“The main problem which the medical profession in the most advanced sectors of the galaxy had to tackle after cures had been found for all the major diseases, and instant repair systems had been invented for all physical injuries and disablements except some of the more advanced forms of death, was that of employment.
“Planets full of bronzed healthy clean-limbed individuals merrily prancing through their lives meant that the only doctors still in business were the psychiatrists, simply because no one had discovered a cure for the universe as a whole—or rather the one that did exist had been abolished by the medical doctors.”
THE NARRATOR, FIT THE ELEVENTH,
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
It was half a century and a world away. In Britain, the 1950s were not famously colourful. If the nineties were a decade when everything had inverted commas around it, the fifties were like sitting through The Mousetrap over and over again in some church hall with rock-hard seats. You would say “as joyous as the fifties” about as often as you’d remark that something was as droll as a Bergman season.
Internationally, Eva Peron, “the mother of Argentina,” died in 1952. Great swathes of Africa were still under European colonial rule. The Korean War ended in 1953 having cost almost three million lives. President Eisenhower was in the White House (twice), while Americans got richer and their cars, already the size of cathedrals, became larger and finnier with every passing year.
British society was one of those bottles of fizz that feel as hard as teak until the top is unscrewed and the pressure released. Dr. Jonathan Miller, the director, writer and polymath, thinks that in many ways the fifties were a social extension of the thirties with habits of deference that did not change until a decade later. A certain strangulated gentility ruled, especially in the suburbs whose sprawl had been contained by “green belt” legislation just in time to prevent the whole of southern Britain below a line from the Wash to Cardigan Bay from becoming a housing estate.
Car ownership was only for the well-off. Television was grainy and black and white (405 lines to the screen and not today’s 625), and it was by no means universal. The sets themselves were huge brown boxes containing valves that took a minute to warm up and stored energy long enough for a strange white dot to fade slowly from the screen when the power was turned off.
Despite their room-crushing dimensions, TVs had hanky-sized screens in front of which free-standing magnifiers could be placed. There were two channels, and on the BBC continuity gaps were filled with footage of a potter’s hands shaping a clay vase. Spiffing chaps in dinner jackets or county women in evening dress would announce the next programme with voices of crystal-etching upper-class Oxbridge English.
The fifties were a time of damp gabardine macintoshes, ugly haircuts, hideously uncomfortable clothes, stodgy food, buildings of fashionable brutality inspired by scaled-up packets of cornflakes, and suffocating disapproval. Beneath the surface all was churning. Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim pierced the phoney moralizing with randy glee in 1954, and John Osborne excoriated the stultifying hypocrisy of it all in Look Back in Anger (1956). But on the surface an oppressive and paralysing respectability prevailed.
In Cambridge in early 1951, Janet Donovan met Christopher Douglas Adams, who was twenty-four at the time. Janet was a nurse at Addenbrookes, the famous Cambridge hospital. She was rather pretty, then as now a pragmatic woman with a sympathetic, no-nonsense manner. Despite being a staple of Mills and Boon romances, nurses tend not to be soppy. After all, if your daily routine consists of dealing with the ill and cantankerous public and its leaky orifices, soppiness could not survive for long. It was an unlikely liaison, but Janet was swept off her feet by the fascinating Christopher Adams. They quickly married (in Wisbech), and on 11 March 1952 Janet gave birth to Douglas Noël Adams, an infant hominid whose unusual intelligence would not be manifest for quite a while. Indeed, he was a markedly late developer in all but size, being a whopper even as a baby. Douglas’s first name has a certain dynastic inevitability. Later one of his stock jokes was that he (initials DNA) arrived in Cambridge nine months before J.D. Watson and Francis Crick worked out the double helix structure of deoxyribonucleic acid.
When somebody as extraordinary as Douglas Adams appears, there’s a temptation to regard him as some kind of happy fluke, rather in the same way that townies imagine that meat never runs about a field but pops into being in sterile packs in huge supermarket refrigerators. But in both cases there is a long line of antecedents.
Doctoring was the family business, and it stretched back to the late eighteenth century. In four generations there were eleven male Dr. Adamses and one woman surgeon. It was a Scottish dynasty of tall, clever men, and one that combined considerable talent with a strong sense of obligation to the public good. Interestingly, quite a few of those Adamses also wrote books, some were inspired teachers and lecturers and nearly all of them—perhaps all, but the records are incomplete—seem to have had an appetite and a gift for public speaking.
The great, great grand-daddy of them all was Alexander Maxwell Adams (1792–1860), who graduated from Edinburgh University and then practised in that city in Argyle Square, now the site of the Museum of Science and Arts. He left three sons who also became doctors. His great-grandson, also Alexander Maxwell Adams, author of a family history published in four parts by the Hamilton Advertiser in 1922, described him—somewhat obscurely quoting Thales—as a man who “took time by the forelock.” He was a popular man, who did a lot of unpaid work for the poorer folk of Edinburgh.
This was what saved him one day in 1828 after a mob mistook him for Dr. Knox, the famous anatomist of Surgeons’ Hall, who had been innocently implicated in the Burke and Hare murders. You will remember that Burke and Hare were the notorious body-snatchers who robbed the graves of the recently dead in order to supply, cash on delivery and no questions, corpses to the local medical school. (You may wonder how much important medical knowledge was hard won in such iffy circumstances.)
Body-snatching was a lucrative business—and one in which unsurprisingly the anatomists favoured good, fresh material—so much so that Burke and Hare were tempted to regulate what the economists call the supply side, by not actually waiting for nature to take its course. They anticipated death, to the extent of murdering some of the rootless people in their own lodging house. Dr. Robert Knox had his suspicions aroused when he saw the body of “Daft Jamie” in the dissecting room, and raised the alarm.
Despite this, the doctor became something of a bogeyman. The mob, returning from despoiling his house, spotted Dr. Adams, mistook him for Knox, and decided to string him up from one of the large brackets used to suspend oil lamps, then the only means of street lighting. Dr. Adams’s expostulations were in vain, the rope was around his neck; it looked very bleak. A century later, Dr. Alexander Maxwell Adams (the fourth) was to describe matters, with that caution that marks a man of science, as “an unpromising position.” Suddenly one of the crowd shouted out: “What! Would ye hang the lang [tall] doctor o’ the south?” Dr. Adams’s practice was south of the Nor’loch.
Dr. Adams survived this flirtation with the grim reaper to live on as a well-respected Edinburgh doctor. He was the author of several textbooks, including A Treatise on Female Complaints, some pretty bad poetry, and a novel, Gamoshka, or Memoirs of the Goodwin Family. However, he was best known for Sketches from the Life of a Physician based on his experiences as a General Practitioner. It’s engagingly written, full of historically interesting detail and suffused with dry humour. For medical men and women it is rightly viewed as a minor classic.
His sons, Dr. Adams, Dr. Adams and Dr. Adams, were all highly regarded. William David had a distinguished career in Edinburgh. Alexander Maxwell (the second of that name) became Professor at Portland Street School of Medicine at the Andersonian University, Glasgow, and then practised in Lanark where he went on to become the Provost of Lanark, a job peculiar to Scotland that, as head of a municipal authority or burgh, carries a lot of responsibility.
James Maxwell Adams (1817–1899), the middle son, also took the road to Glasgow where he built up a large practice in medicine, with added toxicology and engineering. He invented the Adams Inhaler for Respiratory Diseases, not only more efficient than the previous model but much cheaper to manufacture. He composed many innovative scientific papers on such subjects as heating by gas. (British cities were black with soot from coal fires at the time.) In 1865 his subtle forensic work, which involved devising from scratch a lethality experiment with rabbits and a control group, contributed to the conviction of Dr. Edward Pritchard, who was accused of poisoning not only his mother-in-law but also his wife. The creepy Dr. Pritchard has the unusual distinction of being the last man to be hanged in Glasgow in public.