Emeritus Professor Terry Speed, recipient of the 2013 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, got a taste for science behind the shelves of a pharmacy in the 1950’s.
I worked in a pharmacy, or chemist shops as they were called in those days, delivering prescriptions.
This was in the mid-1950s – another era.
These days, when you go to a pharmacy you hand over your prescription and the pharmacist goes to a shelf and hands it to you. Everything is packaged and, in a way, a pharmacy is like the middle-man between the company that makes pre-packaged drugs and the consumer who swallows them.
In those days, the chemists would actually make the medicines. They would take stuff out of bottles, put it in a bowl, mix it and add a bit of this and a bit of that to essentially create the prescription.
That was fun to watch. All those potions out the back of the shop were like something out of a witch’s brew or something from Dr Who. There were loads – and, of course, there were poisons too, which were kept on high shelves.
I really liked hanging out in that back room and watch them make up stuff. I was 13 years old and it was a little bit like having my own chemistry set. The owners of the shop knew I was interested in medicine, so occasionally I was allowed to help. I would be given a mortar and pestle to crush up lumps of stuff.
I was inclined towards medicine, so I was very interested in how the drugs were made. I especially liked knowing about the chemical composition of all the drugs. The chemists there had a big fat book called the Pharmacopoeia, which is like an encyclopaedia of drugs and pharmacy information. I used to look up drugs and the book would tell me what they would do and what the side-effects were.
If I was going to take some particular drug to a person and I could see from the outside what it was, I would often look it up. I really enjoyed reading that book.
The chemist shop was in St Kilda, which was a slightly strange place then. We had a mixed group of clientele – an interesting collection of people, you might say.
I had a bike and a satchel to hold all the prescriptions and I had to learn all the routes, the street names and the names of the blocks of flats.
I remember it used to rain like hell at times and on those days I used to get tips from the grateful old ladies.
I’ve got no idea how much I used to get paid, but I enjoyed it so much I’m sure I would have done it for nothing.
I learned a bit about old people and social isolation. I also learned a bit about weird people too. When you deliver stuff to people’s homes you hear all sorts of strange things.
Sometimes I’d see people who, shall we say, weren’t properly dressed or I’d accidentally barge in on people having an argument. They’d be shouting at each other or their kids and they’d see me and say, “Shut up! The boy from the chemist shop’s here!”
I remember always trying to read prescriptions and thinking, ‘Why doesn’t somebody teach doctors how to write?’
Working at the chemist shop certainly fostered my interest in chemical things. And it was a pretty nice place to learn about chemistry.
When I left school I was thinking of going into medical research, which is where I am now.
I’ve had a sort of roundabout route. I started medicine and then dropped out, then went into mathematics and wound my way back to medical research.
Back then, when I was a kid, I found chemistry and molecules and all their strange compositions pretty fascinating. I still do.
Prof Speed, a statistician, is the head of bioinformatics at Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research.