My best teacher - Robert Winston

13th February 2009 at 00:00
Field trips in Hertfordshire and Scotland and an enthusiastic biology teacher inspired this fertility expert

St Paul's School in London, an independent boys' school, was full of completely eccentric teachers who were bizarre, wonderful and highly intelligent. Perhaps one of the greatest teachers was the head of biology, Sid Pask. He had this extraordinary ability: he was both an inspiring person and he understood the way to turn people on to science was practical work, and he did that excellently.

We went on all sorts of field trips. We used to dredge streams in summer, we would go to Hertfordshire to look at plant life, we went to the beach to count seaweed and we used to go to Millport in Scotland. He took us on field trips at weekends and we would smoke and go to the pub with him.

We were out of uniform for the trips and he didn't try to discipline us, allowing us to be quite boisterous teenagers. He would sit there with a quiet smile on his face and occasionally he would buy us a glass of beer in the pub. Sid was supportive and there was a humanity about him, which was important. Scientists sometimes forget that they are part of humanity.

From the age of seven I wanted to be a scientist. We had books on science at home and the big thing when I was 11 was the Festival of Britain. I wanted to know how things worked.

Chemistry was my big subject, although at A-level I did best in physics. I probably did least well in biology, but Sid was crucial in my development. He was witty, open-minded, inquiring and enthusiastic, and he was able to see what was sensible and what was not. He was able to focus on the things that were likely to stimulate us.

We dissected about 20 species of animal. Nowadays you might dissect an eye from the abattoir, but you don't get the chance to dissect a whole animal. Dissection was fantastic in biology. We used to dissect plants as well.

I was going to do biology with natural science at Cambridge, and then switched to medicine. The first year at university I didn't need to do any work because I'd done it at school.

St Paul's was a fabulous school, and it still is. I think it is probably better now. It is more aware of science as being mainstream; then science was quite fringe. In terms of intellectual development, it was phenomenal.

Nowadays, we see science much more as part of our culture, and that is a massively important advance. But children think science is difficult and that is an issue. More practical work in schools would help.

Research shows that about 60 per cent of schools have inadequate laboratories, or health and safety is an excuse for not doing experiments. It would be a massive thing to try and improve the value of the practical work that children do, the sort of work we did with Sid.

Robert Winston, a pioneer of fertility treatment, is now professor of science and society at Imperial College London. He was made a life peer in 1995. His television work includes 'Your Life in Their Hands', 'The Human Body' and 'Child of Our Time'. His latest book, called 'Evolution Revolution', has just been published. He was talking to Nick Morrison.

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