The engaging Melvin Bragg

As I’ve mentioned to Troppodillians previously, Melvin Brag has an interesting show on BBC radio called ‘In our time’. It’s a kind of amateur hour with a professional broadcaster. He (usually) interviews three ‘experts’ about something that he’s interested in but ignorant about save for some boning up before the show.

I don’t think the format works as well as one which put a bit more effort in – one that was pre-recorded and edited a bit more. Still there’s something strange and very English about it in a nice sort of way – perhaps a celebration of the amateur.

Then after the show if you sign up to his newsletter, you get a newsletter from him which is a bit like getting a letter from him as if you were his mum – just some notes – usually self deprecatory about how he reckons he went (often how he thinks he stuffed up the show – at least compared with his hopes and intentions). This week it was microbiology (would you believe) and Melvin’s cute little letter to his mum is reproduced below the fold. I haven’t listened to the program yet.

Next week – epistolary literature (would you believe).


I was annoyed with myself when I thought about the programme on microbiology.
The contributors were very good. Making a first appearance, Andrew Mendelsohn was completely at ease and Anne Glover was sensationally clear, succinct and everything you want an academic contributor to be.

But I seem to have missed out points which, in preparing for the programme, interested me very much. The basic notion that âwe are all infected but relatively few of us are illâ, that sentence came from Dr Emil Behring who won the first Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1901 for work in creating a diphtheria vaccine serum. He had proved through microbiology that causation of disease was complex. His work went back to a massive poll in New York in 1894 which proved that thousands of healthy children had the diphtheria bacteria. It also became known in the 1890s that 90% of Europeâs population was infected with the TB bacillus. So what was going on?

Again I could have asked the contributors to address Pasteurâs great discovery that it was not spontaneous generation that created microbes, it was rather that there were microbes in the air and they would break through immune systems whenever they could. The fault is not in the microbes but in ourselves, you might say. Spontaneous generation. Iâm again not sure that I nagged away to clarify that doctrine, which held that organic life could and does arise from inorganic matter. Pasteurâs experiments proved that it was microbes who were the agent that caused things to spoil â microbes which could be found in the air, in water and in the soil.

I could go on being annoyed with myself. The subject appeared relatively straight forward, in the sense that there were few figures in the historical landscape and comparatively few moves. But unless the moves are explained more fully than I asked for them to be explained, then I fear that people might not have gained all they could from these extremely well-informed contributors. Why did we not talk about anthrax-infected cattle and horses, for example? We shall never know.

In my first few days at university I met a man, Iâll give you first name only, Robert, who was a zoologist. He was a friend then and has been a friend ever since. One startling remark he made soon after we met was âbabies die you know if kept in a sterile atmosphereâ. That, too, was something that could have been further explored in this programme.

Disgruntled â at self â

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

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17 years ago

Ta, Nick. I meant to get onto this last time you mentioned it but never did. Am listening to “Archaeology and Imperialism” now. And yay to the BBC for making them all downloadable.