My best teacher

1962 Born in Plymouth

1973-80 Attends Plymouth college

1980-90 Attends University College Hospital medical school, London, followed by posts at various London hospitals.

1990-91 One of two doctors running a hospital in Nqutu, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

1991 onwards Becomes world authority on the hormone system within cells, currently researching how the hormone system operates to find out why exercise is good for you.

2000 onwards Consultant in charge of intensive care unit, Middlesex hospital; senior lecturer in cardiovascular genetics at UCH.

Summer 2002 The Voyage of the Arctic Tern published by Walker Books. Working on next book, Morchilla and Ptarmagon

Mike Allen made us push the desks aside, climbed a stack of chairs and sat swaying at the top directing us.

Plymouth is an exciting place to grow up; Dartmoor is nearby and there are lots of interesting old houses, plus the sea and everything associated with it. My sisters and I grew up looking for buried treasure in caves. I remember squeezing through a crack in a rock and coming out to overlook a secret valley with Stone Age remains. We were taken fossiling at Chesil Beach and Lyme Regis. I often felt that something magical might be around the corner if I looked for it.

Our next-door neighbour took me snorkelling when I was four - I could just about swim - and I realised that you could see another world. I learned to dive at 14 because I had developed an arthritic condition in my knee and had to do something non-weight-bearing. I became hooked, and the next summer I saw an advertisement for a team to look for a wreck in Portsmouth, for pound;1 a day. Nobody was applying because the Solent is horrible - freezing, dark and mucky.

At 15 I was working alongside commercial divers in their twenties, slicing through mud like chocolate cake to reach the timbers. We found Henry VIII's ship, the Mary Rose, which had been intact since 1545. There were fully clad skeletons with longbows over their shoulders, and there were still fingerprints inside the ointments in the barber-surgeon's chest. The chaplain's chest was still being guarded by the skeleton of his dog.

We were in great demand as trained underwater archaeologists and I went to work on another wreck off the coast of Italy, from 621BC. I found wooden flutes that you could still play. These things stay in your head: in The Voyage of the Arctic Tern, my character Bruno is a pirate who salvages other people's ships. It's a story in verse: I've always liked narrative poetry. I started writing it for my godchildren in 1993, when I was doing research and hanging around the lab while an experiment cooked, or when I didn't have time to sleep.

We're a product of our genes and our environment: my maternal grandparents, who read frantically, provided my literary genes, but it's also a question of who you're exposed to. If I hadn't been taught how to play with language I wouldn't have used that part of my inheritance.

Mike Allen, my English teacher at Plymouth college from when I was 13, was inspirational. He had total authority with the class, without appearing to be exerting discipline at all, and was passionate about not only giving us the tools of language but making sure we enjoyed it. In our first O-level term we were reading Julius Caesar in a rather turgid fashion and he said, "God, this is boring". He made us push the desks aside, climbed a stack of chairs and sat swaying at the top directing us. We were set very creative projects: essays had to be written as parody, or he'd get us to write haiku (bloody impossible). He always pushed us to explore something new.

When I was very young my ambition was to be a violinist on a submarine, but given my background it was more likely that I would settle on medicine. My mother was a paediatric nurse, my father was a paediatrician and I was around kids' wards from the age of four. In the bad old days as a junior doctor, I worked 24 hours a day for three months, getting sleep where I could. I'd grown up thinking that was what you did.

At UCH I was taught by Professor Eric Neale, one of the world's greatest ever physiologists and a complete polymath: he was a national fell-running champion, he'd been on the Everest expeditions with Hillary, and he played jazz piano at Ronnie Scott's.

He demanded nothing but your absolute best and believed the sky was not the limit. If you were working flat out he'd encourage you; if you weren't he'd cut you dead. He persuaded three of us to take a year out to do a degree with him. When he died in the Eighties, I gave the address at his funeral. I must have cried for the whole day. Like Mike, he had the sort of charisma that made you want to do your best.

Hugh Montgomery, consultant in intensive care, expert in genetics, and children's author, was talking to Geraldine Brennan

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