Ronald Basil Girdler

1925 - 2017

Helene Girdler

1927 - 2020

Work in the Hospital Path Lab

I found the work fascinating. I was trained in all the branches of Pathology Lab work, which included Bacteriology, Histology, Biochemistry and Haematology and there were laboratory animals which had to be looked after on a rota system. I learnt how to make agar plates for growing bacteria from swabs, sputum and other samples, and how to spread the samples on the plates, In Histology I was shown how to treat tissues from the operating theatres and post-mortems, and how to use the microtome to cut the samples into microscopically thin sections and then to stain them. In the Biochem. lab I was introduced to the intricacies of analysis of all bodily samples, and in Haematology I was shown how to take blood from patients by finger-prick and to do haemoglobin assays and full blood counts. I worked every Saturday morning and one Sunday morning in four and I felt privileged to do it. On the Sunday morning stint I worked alone in the lab and was responsible for everything that needed to be done, including testing all the samples that arrived from the local hospitals, and watering and feeding the mice, guinea-pigs, rats and rabbits. I once took Mum in with me so that she could see what kind of work I had to do. I think she enjoyed that as she often referred to it in later times.

The N.H.S. was instituted in 1948 and I joined the lab soon after its inception. Antibiotics had only Just begun to be used in civilian hospitals and the results were quite dramatic, as were the effects of immunisation of babies against diphtheria. We kept records of the incidence of this disease and found that numbers were decreasing tremendously. In fact I never saw a single case during my time there. Abortion was at this time still illegal, and we had a ward that was always full of septic abortion patients, indicating that they were self-induced or performed by back-street

abortionists in unhygienic conditions. As technicians we were exposed to all manner of infections but I never caught anything, unlike two of my colleagues who both succumbed to tuberculosis. Fortunately for them a new treatments had recently become available, known as streptomycin and P.A.S., which although treatment had to be continued for over a year during which bed rest was essential, did produce a cure.

Not only were we involved in the testing of samples, but at that time we had to produce many of the items in constant use, such as agar media, isotonic saline solutions and other nutrient solutions. We were responsible for sterilising syringes and needles, producing sterile glass pipettes by drawing out tubes of molten glass, capping and sterilising hundreds of sample bottles and sterilising by autoclave all the used sample bottles and plates. We even had to sharpen by hand all the used syringe needles. Nowadays of course all these things are supplied to hospitals and labs by outside suppliers, already wrapped and sterilised for one use only, and most of the testing is done by automation. "Blood Ladies" still tour the wards collecting blood samples, but they take blood from the veins by syringes which are all disposable. In my day we had to take blood from a finger , ear-lobe or toe, in the case of babies.

I met lots of people there, both men and women, doctors and patients, technicians of all ages and I absolutely loved it. The lab was attached to the Royal Free Hospital in Lawn Road, Belsize Park but as it was the Group Hospital all the other local smaller hospitals sent their lab work there too. It  was always very busy and everyone was very friendly.

One day, one of the women doctors (there weren't many, in fact I can't remember any others) asked me to accompany her to the Post-mortem team to take notes for her whilst she did a P.M. I was a bit apprehensive at the thought of seeing my first dead body and was somewhat put out to see the body -a male- already lying on the slab with the scalp having been partially removed and lying inside-out over the face. However work started Immediately and there was so much to write down (in longhand) that I had no time to feel squeamish. On another occasion the same doctor took me with her to the wards to help with making glass microscope slides of bone marrow at the bedside of a patient on whom she performed a sternal puncture to obtain a bone-marrow sample. I was not much help on this occasion however, because the sight of the very large needle sticking out of the patient's chest like Cock Robin on his deathbed made me feel faint and I had to leave the curtained bedside in a hurry and lie down on an unoccupied bed.

Whilst I was working in the Haematology lab I was called to the wards to do an emergency blood test on an elderly patient who had pneumonia and was lying in an oxygen tent, a piece of equipment which has since given way to the much easier to manage oxygen cylinder and mask. The man was very ill and was surrounded by the consultant and his entourage. I hesitated to go to his bedside but was beckoned behind the screens by the consultant to carry on. I had never before been in this situation and was very nervous but had to continue. I had to turn back the flap of the transparent tent, and with all eyes watching attempt to obtain a few drops of blood from the patient's ear lobe by pricking it with a large needle, having previously swabbed the area with a swab soaked in ether. Usually this was sufficient to produce an amount of blood which often dripped uncontrollably down the patient's neck. However, owing to the man's poor state of health or my own inexperience I was unable to squeeze out a single drop. The consultant suggested that I try the area at the base of the thumb nail. I had never done this before and tentatively had a go. "Jab harder!" he said, and out oozed a drop of dark red blood, It was with great relief that I found a sufficient amount for my requirements and I hurriedly retreated from the bedside shaking like a leaf, I felt I had passed the test and was never worried about approaching a patient again. I hope the patient benefited from my efforts, but I doubt it.

A member of staff always had to be on duty, including lunch breaks, to receive and enter into the records any specimen which arrived in the lab from the wards. I was alone one day on duty when a specimen was brought in. I was not absolutely sure what the specimen was or what test was required, but studying the form which accompanied it, I decided that it was a bacteriological request so I accordingly plated it on an agar plate. Imagine my chagrin when I later discovered that the specimen was semen and that I had carried out the wrong test! The poor patient had to produce another specimen.

As well as working hard we technicians had a lot of fun too. There was on regular test we had to do in the Bacteriology lab on a sample of faeces which was placed in a liquid nutrient medium in a small gold-topped bottle. After incubation a small loop of this concoction was spread on an agar plate and incubated in order to detect pathological organisms. Of course the contents of the gold-topped bottle acquired a pungent and unpleasant odour. I was working at the time with a young man and between us we put together an "ad" for this wonderful perfume "which comes to you in a gold-tapped flagon". Word got around the lab about our new venture into perfumery and it became "our joke". It seemed highly amusing at the time and most people joined in the joke. However the Chief Technician got to hear of it, and whilst we were not exactly reprimanded it was made quite clear that this sort of thing was not to happen again.

The Path. Lab was subsequently demolished, together with the antiquated Royal Free Hospital and a brand new very large hospital was built in their place in Pond Road.


I was asked to tea one Sunday afternoon to meet Ron's family, which was an ordeal to me. I had always found it difficult when meeting new people, and I always became tongue-tied, and this occasion was special. Ron's parents, sister and boy-friend were there and they did their best to put me at my ease, but I can remember that I hardly said a word. We had tea and then they brought out a billiard table and asked me to play. I was never one for games, because I hated (and still do) making a fool of myself, and as I had never played this game before I declined to take part, so I sat and watched them all. What they must have thought of me I can't imagine.

The first time Ron came to my house there was quite a houseful. Mum and Dad of course, Barbara and Leslie, John and Shirley were there, and maybe Het and Jack and Linda too. We all sat down to tea (was it something with chips?) and Ron was offered a bottle of tomato sauce. He shook the bottle but unfortunately the top had not been screwed on properly and the sauce flew out of the bottle all over the wall behind him. He was more than a little embarrassed but he certainly made an impression!

When Ron had finished his degree course in June 1950 we decided to go away for the weekend and chose to go to Arundel in Sussex. I remember asking Mum if she would allow me to go - and I was nearly 23! She told me that she was pleased I had asked, and she knew I could behave myself, so we booked rooms in a boarding house for the Saturday night. The landlady was very suspicious of us, and put me in the room next to hers and Ron in a room upstairs. She kept her bedroom door open all night! I wonder if she slept at all. The weather that week-end was wonderful, fine and warm. We walked, and paid a visit to Arundel Castle which was closed but  we were able to walk round the grounds. We had intended to catch the train home at about 8p.m. on the Sunday but because it was such a balmy evening we decided to get the last train back to London, What we had not bargained for was that by the time we got into London, all the tube trains had stopped- it was not very late but in those days trains and buses stopped much earlier than they do now. The buses that were available went as far as the bus garages only So we were in a predicament. We hadn't enough money for a taxi even if we had wanted to use one, although the thought never occurred to us. We had our suitcases to carry too and I was wearing high heels. We thought we'd have to walk home, a distance of about eight miles, when I suddenly hit upon the idea of calling at my sister Barbara's flat in Kensington. We managed to get a bus there only to find that she was not in. There seemed nothing for it but to walk, but we didn't want the encumbrance of the suitcases so we decided to leave them outside her front door. We hadn't even got a pencil and paper to leave a note of explanation for her. We set out and managed to find a bus to Cricklewood Garage about 2 miles from Ron's home and we walked the rest. I couldn't phone my parents as we hadn't got the 2 penny coins required, and Ron's parents weren't on the phone. They were asleep when we got there and we crept in. I slept in Ron's bed and Ron slept downstairs on the settee. When his father came in to Ron's room to wake him up in the morning he was somewhat taken aback to find me there. Lots of explanations were required and after breakfast I went straight to work intending to phone home as soon as I got a minute to spare. During the course of the morning I received a frantic call from Mum. She had of course been beside herself with worry, and my sister had phoned her to tell her about the mysterious suitcases which she had recognised as ours from the contents. With the thoughtlessness of youth we had not realised that anyone would be concerned about us. We knew we were alright, so why should anyone else worry?

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