Jonathan Miller

An interesting specimen of a teacher made science feel like second nature for this inquisitive pupil

My father was a military psychiatrist so we were always moving. I went to five schools between the ages of six and 10, including a Rudolph Steiner school in Hertfordshire, where I remember little except eurythmics. I left with no academic attainment - but I enjoyed it.

After prep school at Arnold House in north London, I went to St Paul's School at 13, initially as a classicist, but after two years I changed to biology. It was then I encountered a rather miraculous teacher called Sid Pask. He was a robust, fleshy fellow who looked like a gentleman farmer. He would stand behind his bench in the biology lab, which was my classroom, smoking a pipe and relighting it from a Bunsen burner. He just assumed that one was totally committed to biology.

Alongside classmates such as Oliver Sacks, I learned how to make tissue sections and stain them to view cells under the microscope. We learned to dissect dogfish, rabbits, frogs and earthworms. Lunchtimes were for carrying out more dissections, and as far as Mr Pask was concerned, that applied to holidays too.

At weekends in the winter he took us to the Natural History Museum where we drew diagrams of vertebrates and considered evolution. In the summer we went on excursions by train into the suburbs to collect plants, press them and learn to classify them.

Every Easter he would take us to the Marine Biology Association's laboratories for two weeks on the Clyde estuary at Millport, where we collected specimens on the rocky and sandy shores. At 10pm we would collect sea urchins washed up by the spring tides and harvest eggs and sperm, which we then mixed. Through a microscope, we watched all night as, miraculously, one cell became two. Over hours we saw the emergence of a recognisable creature. It was my first introduction to embryology. That concept of self-made things stayed with me and I later made a radio programme about it.

I became excited at the idea of evolution and classification of living things -ideas which made it impossible for me to be anything but an atheist. I was convinced I wanted to be a biologist, but in my last year I became fascinated by the structure of the nervous system in humans and decided to study medicine.

I'm sure that Mr Pask's influence is partly responsible for the fact that I make no distinction between entertainment and illumination. The interest I have at any particular time also becomes my hobby.

The other teacher to whom I owe a great debt is Russ Hanson, the American philosopher with whom I took a half course in history and philosophy of science at Cambridge University. Our discussions about the nature of perception revealed a parallel line of study for me about the nature of science itself.

Russ Hanson and Sid Pask introduced me to the idea that there was a coherence in the natural world, which has been a catalyst for much that I have done later. I was very privileged to have encountered them Sir Jonathan Miller started his career as a doctor, then joined Peter Cook and Dudley Moore to form the satirical review Beyond The Fringe. Since then his career has encompassed opera direction, authorship, philosophy, lecturing, directing and presenting TV series including the BBC's The Living Body and A Brief History of Disbelief. Currently he is directing a highly acclaimed, semi-staged production of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo by the New London Consort, to be performed at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester on March 16. He was talking to Rachel Pugh

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