Fame, fortune and philosophy

My customary view of Lord Robert Winston, once a year on the Jewish holiday of Passover, is from one end of a long table, as he presides at the other end and conducts the service. Thus it was something of a novelty to find myself face to face with him across a polished table in his office at Imperial University, with only a jar of multicoloured liquorice between us.  Declining the offer of a piece of liquorice, I ask him to tell me about his career in science, during which he has produced a prodigious number of publications, and made pioneering advances in fertility surgery and IVF.

“It’s been one of fits and starts really”, he begins. “It hasn’t really formed a pathway”. Unlike the modern student of science, whose career path he thinks is far less flexible than those of the budding scientists of his generation, Professor Winston’s early years in academia were somewhat unconventional. He earned a first from Cambridge, where he read Natural Sciences, before deciding that he “didn’t really want to look down a microscope” for the rest of his life.  “Of course, the irony is that I’ve ended up looking down a microscope for most of my life anyway.” This, Winston modestly proposes, is the result of a series of lucky breaks, the earliest of which he identifies as his achievement of a First at Cambridge. “I got a First by default”, he says. “During my clinical examinations I made a couple of diagnoses that had been missed by the examiners. I think the examiners were somewhat embarrassed. In one case there was an emergency decision that needed to be made, and the patient was sent straight to the operating theatre from the moment I examined her.”

After spending a few years in clinical medicine, Winston temporarily renounced academia to pursue a career in theatre, a longstanding passion of his. He took a production of Pirandello’s Each in his own way to the Edinburgh festival, where “it won a prize” – the National Director’s Award, it turns out – and had several offers to continue professionally. He returned to the medical world, however after a year – a move that was “more difficult than I expected, with long hair” – and began his attempt to re-immerse himself in academia by applying to three of the top institutions in his field of interest, obstetrics and gynaecology. He confesses that the application process was perhaps more intimidating than it would be these days. “I remember my first interview, which was in Chelsea. I sat at this table in a room where I was facing the light so I couldn’t actually see the twenty-five people around the table who were interviewing me, three of whom were wearing wing collars.” This is in keeping with the tone of medicine in the late 60s and early 70s, he assures me. “The junior house officers were required to wait at table for the consultants. It was utterly bizarre.” Rejected from all three of the institutions to which he applied, Winston wrote “in a fit of desperation” to the head of Hammersmith Institute of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, which he had neglected to apply to, in the belief that it was too prestigious. In what he regards as an “incredibly lucky” turn of events, he was given a two month position there. “First of all I didn’t have the credentials for the research I wanted to do. The institution that I actually wanted to do it from wasn’t involved with that area of research, I hadn’t published anything at the time and I wasn’t a good student – although I’d got this first. I didn’t have ace credentials.” He adds, “oh and the other thing was, the research that I wanted to do was hair-brained.” With that stroke of luck, however, Robert Winston’s career was put on a trajectory towards success. The three year research grant that he obtained at Hammersmith supplied, he tells me, enough material to ensure that he was “pouring out publications” by the time it had finished. His radically new way of looking at fertility earned him international attention, in a whole variety of “weird places”. And then he “was very fortunate again” when he met Stephen Hillier, in collaboration with whom he worked for five years to alter the face of IVF.

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Although he and Hillier improved IVF significantly, when they developed a way to induce ovulation and hugely increase IVF’s success rates, he had to fight to witness the fruits of his labour. “In 1985 there was a private members’ bill which would have prevented embryo research in Britain, and which nearly got through Parliament”, he recalls. “I think my work there with Anne McLaren – a very distinguished scientist from Cambridge – was…” He begins on a new tack. “She and I together, we literally sat up all night in Parliament, writing briefs for MPs to filibuster that bill. I think my media experience was colossally important. Because I understood that it was a question of being truthful, and not trying to exaggerate, and a whole range of things that we should do, but as scientists we don’t do very well.”

Professor Winston’s work in Parliament obstructing the passage of that bill is only one instance of his wider role as unofficial spokesman for the scientific community. When John Mansfield – then Executive Producer of the BBC’s flagship science programme, Horizon – approached him in 1974 to suggest that they collaborate on a programme, to be broadcast in 1975, speculating what science would be like in the year 2000 (they got most of it wrong), Winston began a career in television that would see him present and participate in a plethora of scientific programmes, including Bafta-award winning The human body. This was the next in a fortunate coincidence of circumstances for Winston – his exposure to the theatre, he says, made the initiation into TV easier (“the thespian stuff came back, I’d never quite lost that”), while it was this television experience, particularly his next collaboration with Mansfield as presenter for Your life in their hands (a programme about live surgery), that he believes gave him the tools to communicate his views so effectively in his bid to save embryo research in Britain, and share science with the public more generally: “John would get me to present something and would then say, “Robert I don’t understand what you’re saying,” “Robert, you’re being obscure”, or “Robert you’re being pompous”. And he was wonderful, because he taught me to think with much greater clarity how you get ideas across in a succinct way on screen.”

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Although the skills Winston has honed as a presenter allow him to overcome others’ ethical qualms about some of his work, do his own personal ethics, and particularly Judaism’s ethical prescriptions, ever clash with the work that he is doing? He thinks about this, before embarking on an explanation as to why Judaism is a bit different to the other monotheistic religions, in its forward thinking views on science and the natural world. “In the Guide to the perplexed, Maimonides says that there are two views on how the world comes into being. One is that view that is held by Aristotle, that the universe has always been there, and is a constant. And the other is that it was created. And he says that, having looked at both arguments, he favours the argument which says that it was created. But then he says something extraordinary. If some new evidence comes along which suggests that this view is flawed, I will have to go back to the text and reinterpret it.” Although I express my scepticism of the suggestion that any religion has revised its views to the extent that they are in line with the latest scientific evidence, Winston is keen to distinguish Judaism from other religions. When one of van Leeuwenhoek’s pupils discovered sperm when inspecting semen under a microscope, he tells me, he claimed to see a fully formed homunculus within the sperm – a claim that still, in part, informs some religious views on Onanism and sex today. However, a Jewish text that was written in reaction to van Leeuwenhoek’s ‘discovery’, remarking on the support it gave to the notion that to destroy the seed was like murder, is now remote and recondite, since the view that it propounded has been updated in the light of new evidence. “Your ethical principles”, Winston concludes “are only as good as your observation of the natural world”.