Chloroform hath no charms to soothe the savage beast

IN our final year in Science in the 1970s, one had to choose a major. Math was out because you had to understand algorithms and no one but Rokok Liew did.

Botany, Physics, Chemistry and Geology were tedious, difficult, arcane and incomprehensible, in that order. That left Biochemistry, which turned out to be the path of least resistance that Akbar and I trod.

We were informed that we had to come up with a book outlining some relatively new work, a thesis that would encompass a quarter of our grades.

The prospect of being authors delighted the hell out of Akbar and me, but the road to it was fraught with danger. It meant long hours in the lab, for one thing.

Our projects were chosen and pinned on the notice board. An ashen-faced Akbar informed me that he had been given ginseng, specifically, its effects on rat heart mitochondria.

My heart bled for him. I didn’t know what a mitochondrion was either!

He cheered up briefly when he found out that I had been assigned to measure minute levels of estriol in the bloodstream, specifically, a procedure called “radioimmunoassay of plasma estriol”.

He’d never heard of it either!

But Akbar’s project demanded vivisection on a mass scale. Briefly, he had to kill a rat, take out its still-beating heart, place it in Ringer’s Solution and proceed to measure, analyse and scrutinise various reactions of the said heart in varying proportions of ginseng; bewildering procedures that he didn’t understand but did because that was what the script demanded.

On a scientific note, one never “killed” in Biochemistry, one merely “sacrificed”.

But the rats were something else. They were mean, savage beasts whose idea of fun was giving rabies to final-year students.

I looked at his first and shuddered as it sneered balefully at us from a jar. As a firm respector of animal rights, I suggested knocking out the rodent through chloroform so it might not feel anything when rendered heartless.

So we did and continued doing so until the entire department was evacuated by woozy technicians, cursing students, and irate lecturers vowing retribution.

But the rat stood there malevolently, in a miasma of chloroform; seemingly in no need of any Panadol.

The next day, Akbar’s supervisor, a Master of the Universe, demonstrated the how-to. No rat sneered at him, and it soon became clear why.

He picked up a rat by its tail, dashed its head against the table and removed its still-beating heart; all within seconds. The class, and the remaining rats, watched, awestruck.

In two months, Akbar had morphed into a Master of the Universe; a rat’s vision of Heinrich Himmler. He was sacrificing up to ten a day and his results suggested that ginseng had something going for it.

His competence depressed me, as my incompetence was reaching mythic proportions.

I’d reached the stage in my project where I needed to get antibodies to the hormone I was working on. To get that, I had to inject goats and rabbits with the hormone derivative I’d been working on, wait, and then draw blood to retrieve the antibodies.

The goats were decent fellows, bless their goatish hearts. The rabbits weren’t. Big, sulky and morose with sharp claws, they hated final-year students.

The latter point was conveyed to me by a supercilious lab technician who seemed perversely delighted by these revelations.

But I didn’t lose my cool.

Shivering, but in a manner that tried to suggest Watson and Crick rather than fright, I approached one pointedly.

I can only modestly say that in the ensuing struggle, I made history. I may have been the first person in Universiti Malaya to have attempted to immunise a lab technician.

Akbar went on to become a successful consultant paediatrician in Ipoh. There could be a moral in this tale, but the rats might disagree.

Happy New Year, folks!

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