Sunday 10 May 2015

O'Hara's 1959-1993

I spent the whole day yesterday in a cellar.  A very well appointed cellar, with tea and biscuits supplied and sandwiches for lunch, but a cellar without natural light nevertheless.  It was all about the retirement of David McConnell, the Professor of Genetics at Trinity College Dublin. A selection of his colleagues and students came 'home' to tell war stories about The Old Days in O'Hara's the building [L seen the day it was scheduled for final demolition] that housed the Genetics Department as well as O'Hara's the eponymous builders' merchant, a dance studio, a dental engineer and a variety of other enterprises. The building was owned by Trinity College but parts of it were leased out to raise some rent.  It was hideous from the outside, rendered in grey cement with bars on the lower windows against potential burglars.  Inside was a different matter as the centre of this modest-sized corporate building was taken up with a gorgeous stairwell running up to a 1st and 2nd floor. Each floor had a generous three-sided landing that could accommodate an intense scientific conversation and a technician pushing a trolley of used glassware for sterilisation.  Those conversations were where the frontiers were pushed and if boffins were shoved aside every time a trolley passed, it might hold up the progress of science. I mention this because, in the early 1990s the TCD Biotechnology building had been designed by premier Irish architects Scott Tallon Walker and built next door. Its corridors were built to the minimum width allowed by building regulations to allow most space to laboratories and was therefore, in the opinion of many who worked there (including myself 2007-2010) a failed enterprise.

O'Hara's was designed by Sir William Wilde, Oscar's father, as an ophthalmic hospital, just round the corner from his enormous house at #1 Merrion Square.  He wasn't 100% sure that there would be enough business to support the intended business and specified that, as a fall-back position, the building could be easily converted into a Methodist chapel: hence the generous landings which would presumably have had tiered seats like in a court-house.  By the time I came there as a student in 1975, the building was shabby and run down but punching above its weight in science.  At the retirement festival yesterday, one of the frontier-pushers of the old days was talking about a mammoth project that required the screening of thousands of petri-dishes to find very rare, but crucially interesting, mutations in a key bacterial culture.  The desk-top 37oC incubators were fine for classes but wholly inadequate for an early example of industrial throughput mega-science. They conceived the idea of converting one of the small offices into a walk-in incubator, heated to 37oC by Bunsen burners!  Apparently TCD had a fire-safety officer in those 1960s days and seemingly he gave his appro for this clearly-bonkers plan.

In that case nobody died, but it did make me think about fire-safety in O'Hara's, where I spent about 5 years of my life every-working day.  For starters, there were the bars on the ground-floor windows. With a fire raging in the laboratory you might have no other exit but out through those windows.  Then there was the gorgeous central chimney stair-well over the cellar where I threw my bicycle every morning.  That was an Aladdin's cave of discarded equipment, old papers, not-used-very-often chemicals and looping electrical wiring. There were, for example, boxes of 4x6in index cards from George Dawson's 1959 survey of ABO blood groups.  Each person who had ever donated blood in Ireland had been given a colour-coded index card and these were grouped in boxes by county. This sample was 1:18 of the population which was then about 3.5million. At 160gsm, these cards must have weighed in at 500kg of tinder dry paper right under the chimney stair-well.

My near-death experience was nothing to do with conflagration, however. When I came back to Genetics in 1990, I was working in the bioinformatics / molecular evolution lab on the top floor just under a loft that was full of pigeons because there was always a loose slate or two on the roof.  My section of lab bench faced the wall between the lab and the gaffer's office.  Remarkably we had only 3 computer terminals but 4 people, so we had to take turns to get access to the data.  That was fine, because there was lots to do apart from tricking about with data - reading the literature, thinking, writing the next paper, thinking, having a cup of tea, thinking.  One morning I was getting antsy to get a bit of code up and running and I asked Liz if she could let me have my turn at the key-board.  After asking a couple of times, she wrapped up and went off for her turn at  reading, thinking and tea-drinking.  I had just settled my enormous bottom on the stool in front of the screen when 2.5m of 3-tier shelving detached itself from the wall and crashed onto the bench where my hands had been holding a book 5 minutes earlier. The shelves were mostly filled with books and papers but also had stacks of glass sheets for running electrophoretic gels.  Because I wasn't there my arms weren't crushed and my arteries weren't severed by a glass guillotine, so nobody died.

Round about that time, the College appointed a real Heath and Safety Officer, who wasn't a Trinity chap and so could look at the whole place with fresh, and highly critical eyes - that's what he was paid for.  In due course, he turned up to inspect O'Hara's with his clip-board.  Chief technician and head of department came out to meet and greet him. In my memory, he didn't get a third of the way through the ground floor before his clipboard was covered in crosses and he announced that the building would have to be closed down immediately for flagrant abuse of fire, chemical, electrical, radioactive and environmental safety regulations. Needless to say, that didn't happen: he was new on the block and didn't yet realise how the power-structure of an old style university functioned. I guess we did tidy up some of the most obvious deficiencies so the optics were better but the building was not fit for purpose and the damning safety audit quite possibly expedited the replacement of O'Hara's by the swish new Smurfit Institute for Genetics, which arose like a phoenix on the foot print of the [dear] old building.

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