Soham Grammarians - Brian Alps SG50


Rod Else SG56 writes: My memories of Brian initially stem from the late 1950s when we were both attending Soham Grammar School in Soham, Cambridgeshire. When I started attending in 1956, having passed the 11-plus exams ( by the skin of my teeth!), Brian had already done time at the School in the “technical stream”, left to work in his father's electrical/electronic business in Ely (?), and returned to school to study for tertiary education. Consequently, I was a “new boy” and Brian seemed like a very venerable person ….  nearly as old as the teachers in fact! The significance of Brian's associations with electronics and wireless becomes apparent below.

Brian was a prefect (he may even have held School Vice-Captainship but I cannot be sure of that). He was the sort of senior boy that little boys like me trusted implicitly – he was outwardly slightly stern and almost brooding but had a benevolent approach to the younger members. Two memories of that time particularly stick in my mind: school luncheons were never the most civilised of occasions and I well-remember one lunch time when there was a general “outcry” by the assembled pupils taking lunch, and this threatened to become a minor “riot”. Brian was the senior dinner prefect on duty – with very little raising of his voice he somehow quelled the whole situation and I can still see him, slightly bent and looking over the top of his spectacles, addressing the assembled company in a quiet but authoritative way such that they were shamed into quiescence and acceptance of their over-reaction. He just seemed to appeal to their better natures and the whole episode deflated.

The second and probably recurring image I have of Brian is in the Biology laboratory (he acted as a lab.assistant to the biology master, I think), dissecting a rat as we younger pupils came in for a lesson. Although clearly engrossed, he would always allow us to “ogle” and he would smile rather shyly and explain what he was doing. The most important thing that Brian did for me, however, and it was completely unwitting on his part, since he really didn’t know me that well, was to succeed in gaining a place at the University of Bristol's Veterinary School to study veterinary medicine. He was the first pupil from Soham to do this and he provided me with inspiration to “go for it” when it came to my turn to try for veterinary school. I well remember our ageing chemistry master doing his level best to discourage me from applying for the Bristol course with me holding the example of Brian Alps up to myself as an inspiration and thinking, “I bet Brian had to go through this”!

My next involvement with Brian was when I went to do a PhD in equine cardiology with Dr JR Holmes at Bristol. Whilst I was an undergraduate I was aware that Brian was working as a postgraduate at the Veterinary Field Station at Langford, but I was always a bit shy about contacting such high-fliers as PhD students! It wasn’t until I joined Peter Darke as one of “Jims boys” that I realised just what a fundamental contribution to veterinary electrocardiology and particularly veterinary vectorcardiography, Brian had made in his research work. Yes, Jimmy Holmes had the name and the inspiration to embark on the field of electrocardiology in horses, but Brian was fundamentally responsible for making it happen as a workable technique. This was where those earlier years of apprenticeship in his family business bore fruit – Brian's skill and understanding produced many of the “magic boxes” that allowed Jimmy, Peter Darke, myself, and those that came after us, to develop the high level of expertise in electro- and vectorcardiography that the Bristol School enjoyed for so long and gave the Cardiology Unit its well-deserved international success. Now that we have such wonderful imaging techniques and apparatus, it is sometimes hard to remember how fundamentally difficult it was to assess the size of horses hearts and whether or not cardiomegaly was the result of physiological or pathological hypertrophy or dilatation.

Vectorcardiography was one way that such assessments could be made accurately, and Brian's contribution in getting those methods and techniques working was immense. By the time Peter Darke and myself had done our research work and gained our PhDs, Brian had “gone commercial” and entered the world of pharmaceutical cardiological research and development! Like so many others, I suspect that he viewed the prospect of relative impecunity on the then pretty poor academic salaries a non-starter. Always a shrewd man, Brian proved to have made a wise choice!

I moved to the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies Department of Veterinary Pathology [in the University of Edinburgh] in 1977. To my very pleasant surprise I found that both Darke and Alps were “near neighbours”, Peter D. with me at “the Dick”, Brian working for Syntex Research,Ltd., at Heriot-Watt University campus on the outskirts of Edinburgh. We were all busy; consequently, Brian's and my paths rarely crossed during this time (1977 to mid-1980s). I remember meeting him by chance at Heriot-Watt – it must have been 1985 – he had hardly changed, a bit more stooped, a bit greyer-haired, but with the same slightly mischievious grin and economy of speech. It did not take me long in the conversation to realise that Dr Alps was a very important researcher in his field. Still the same Brian though!

Thereafter, our paths did not really cross – I headed on down the road of academic veterinary pathology, but still with an interest in cardiology, whilst Brian travelled onwards and upwards into the stratosphere of cardiological pharmacology research and the understanding of the control of cardiorespiratory function.

I was very glad to hear that Brian had found happiness with Rita. I do regret that I had latterly lost touch completely with Brian. The Brian I knew, and I suspect remained, was a typical East Anglian. Like all Fenmen he could appear initially rather shy and even introspective, and of few words, but what he had to say was salient, accurate, and trustworthy. Even if you were a friend you might never know all that he was thinking but he would always give you an honest opinion. It was he who in the nicest and innocent of ways helped to set me on a career path that I have never regretted and for that he has my great gratitude and remembrance.

[Rod Else retired as Professor of Diagnostic Veterinary Pathology at the Royal Dick in 2010]

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page created 27 Sep 16