Do Something Useful
I was born at a very inopportune time, at the very end of 1941 just after Pearl Harbor had fallen. I was born in an air raid shelter under Bungsar Hospital in Kuala Lumpur. Then, one night in February 1942, my mother was told to get up and get out of bed, we’ve got to flee.
My father was a rubber planter. He got us to the docks in Singapore, and since my father’s family was English, there really wasn’t any choice. We were going to go to England. And he managed to get my mother and me on the last ship to leave Singapore harbor before Singapore fell.
She had been told by my father, “Go to Mary!” Mary was his older sister who lived in Oxford. My first memory is arriving at my aunt’s house. I remember my black patent leather shoes on a worn old carpet, which I later found out was some ancient, very special Persian rug.
England had been bombed, and I remember having to take care. People were very frightened because of the Blitz. So from a very early age I realized that I hadn’t died. And then when I was five, I was taken out of school to go and meet my father at the railroad station. I ran right up to him, recognized him at once. Of all the men who got off the train I knew exactly who he was. But I, too, had a great sense that he had come back from the dead, so to speak.
My parents stayed in the U.K. while father was recuperating. He’d lost everything in the war. So he went back to rubber planting in Malaysia and my mother went with him. I was probably about six by then and they thought it was much safer for me in Oxford, because after WWII it was the Malayan Emergency years—the Communist insurgence. I stayed with Aunt Mary and my uncle the vicar.
I had a wonderful childhood, but it was in fact deprived because of the food rationing and restrictions of the war in England. So I’ve always had this view that if you don’t die, you might as well do something useful with your life. I was very clear on that.
This feeling never really left me. I remember thinking, now this was the 1950s, that I regretted there were no more places to discover geographically, and so I would have to discover things about medicine and the body. When I said I wanted to do something that mattered, even then I thought of it in terms of medicine and disease.
I’d go to Malaysia for summer vacations, but my parents didn’t think it was safe for me to stay there. A lot of Colonials, white people, were being shot. My father was safe however, because he had a Chinese wife and was very respected and well known.