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PeopleRichard Lane

Richard Lane

‘I was born in Hampton, Middlesex, when my dad was away in the Korean War. He was in the Navy until I was about three. We then moved to the edge of Epping Forest with my younger brother and sister and dad, like his father, joined the Police Force. I was passionately interested in natural history from a very young age and often went off on my own exploring nature. My parents were incredibly tolerant of all the strange things I kept around the house. I was particularly fascinated by insects, it seemed they came from another world. It was a challenge growing up with your dad as a local bobby, you had to do what you were told. Conforming isn’t my strong point but that’s what research is all about, everywhere I went I was always pushing the boundaries.

When I was 12 we emigrated to Australia where the wildlife was fantastic. We lived near Perth and I loved exploring the bush finding spiders and snakes without a worry in the world. After three years we returned to live in West Sussex and I went to a secondary school in Cuckfield. I decided I wanted to be an entomologist but the teachers told me that no-one does that for a job. A lot of people told me what I couldn’t do. I left school as soon as I could and went to the Technical College in Brighton—great fun in the late 60s! I was 16 when my dad saw an advert in the newspaper for junior staff at the Natural History Museum so I applied, and went to work there when I was just 17, in June 1968, fifty years ago in fact. I started work at the museum as the lowest form of life whilst I did my A Levels at evening classes including doing Chemistry A Level in just six months. The then Scientific Civil Service ran a competition to sponsor people to go to university.  I asked my head of department if I could enter this competition and was told no-one had ever done that before. I went ahead and won an award. By this time, I’d met Maureen who also worked in the Museum as a scientific illustrator. We got married in 1972, whilst I was still a student, in a little church on Harrow on the Hill.

Studying at Imperial College, London was just fantastic. At last I found people who just ‘knew stuff’ and all the staff were leading authorities in their field. I got a first-class honours degree and suddenly there seemed to be no barrier to achieving things. I did my doctorate (PhD) whilst working back at the Museum on what was to be my main career, insects that transmit diseases. Soon after, I moved to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; another world class institution. I had a research team from India, Pakistan, Israel, Somalia, Jordan, Colombia, all over. I was also travelling for the World Health Organisation, often involving missions to insecure areas. I was in western Pakistan, between Iran and Afghanistan, when streams of lorries passed us; it turned out to be the Taliban invading Afghanistan. I’ve been very lucky not to catch anything too serious considering the number of times we set ourselves up as mosquito bait for scientific research. You can’t do that anymore they reckon it’s too dangerous. I once came back from living with Gurkhas in the jungle with strange maggots in my back. I thought this was really interesting, so I kept them for several weeks to see what they did. Eventually, Maureen said ‘enough is enough I’m not sleeping with a man with maggots in his back anymore’ she thought the experiment had gone on long enough. So, I went to see a dermatologist friend of mine to have them removed. We filmed it of course with students watching and wrote a scientific paper. Another time we were using a high containment lab to experiment on parasites and the blood-sucking flies that transmit a fatal disease. There were no vaccines and the drugs available were very toxic so we had to be careful. One of my friends had an idea of making a vaccine for this disease by using a parasite from a desert rodent and injecting them into ourselves to give us protection against the more dangerous form. We got fantastic levels of immunity so then used the real one – it didn’t work and I ended up with a huge tropical ulcer on my arm. I kept the infection and did lots of experiments on it until Maureen said ‘I’m not sleeping with a bloke with a tropical ulcer anymore.’ So, off I went to see a friend who was experimenting with a new drug for treating this disease, which eventually worked.

We had three children by this time, Lucy, Roly and Nicholas. I travelled a lot to remote areas where communications were very poor. By the time they got a postcard from me I was usually somewhere else. I’ve always said you need a long-suffering wife to work in a job like mine.

After seven years at the Tropical School I went back to the Natural History Museum to head the Entomology Department of about a hundred people and that’s when I wrote my first book, people refer to it as “Lane and Crosskey”. It became a standard text for medically important insects and ticks. Roger Crosskey was my boss and then later I became the boss—I learned a lot from him. I’m just writing his obituary, he died in September.

Then I worked for the Wellcome Trust, the world’s largest charity funding medical research and the largest single funder of the human genome programme. Here we could tackle one of the great injustices of the world—at that time 90% of the world’s health expenditure was spent on just 10% of the world’s population. I went to head up tropical medicine and was responsible for spending between 60 and 100 million dollars a year. We had research centres on malaria in Africa, and set up new research institutes in South Africa, Vietnam and Beirut to study HIV and women and child health. Few people here really understand about women’s health in developing countries. Women were 150 times more likely to die in childbirth than in the UK.

After eight years I returned to the Natural History Museum as Director of Science. I had 350 scientific staff and looked after a collection of 70 million items and a library of over a million volumes. There, I was responsible for setting a new scientific direction making sure the science the museum did was relevant to society. We built a new building that the public could walk through enabling them to see labs and collections to explain what the scientists were doing and how they were doing it. Science isn’t something you should hide away from people. Nature is so beautiful, understanding it makes it even more beautiful. The Natural History Museum holds the human remains of 20,000 people. We had a request to return aboriginal group remains to Australia so I became very involved in the ethics of repatriation. It’s about balancing the benefit to science of retaining these remains compared to the harm caused to the communities of having their ancestors’ remains held somewhere else. I retired from the Natural History Museum in 2011, this same year, I was awarded the OBE by the Queen for services to science and museums.

Whilst working we had a cottage in Kilmington for just over eight years and came down every other weekend without fail. It’s such a beautiful place. The boys had gone off to university and we just had Lucy at home with us. I can’t believe how lucky we are to have landed in Kilmington. Six years ago, we bought the house we are in now, we demolished most of it and designed our new home. We have the countryside and good people around us and can’t ask for much more than that really.

Since retiring I do three things; some consultancy work, volunteering and family, friends and leisure time. On the working front I was approached by the Australian government to be an advisor and work with Aboriginal communities and Torres Straits Islanders helping them with the return of their ancestors’ remains. Some have become great friends and we’ve had one of them to stay here with us. One of the nicest things was to be master of ceremonies at the Australian high commission in London to handover remains to aboriginal groups. I am also advising on a major new science Museum in Bangkok.

My volunteering work includes being a trustee of a UK charity called the Against Malaria Foundation. Every single cent of the $150million we have raised is spent on buying bed nets. We’ve been rated number one charity worldwide by three agencies in America that measure the impact and transparency of charities. Monday morning for example I was on a teleconference to Uganda. So, in good old rural Devon I have tentacles out all over the world. More locally I’m a patron of Lyme Regis Museum. I’ve just published another book The Biology of Parasites along with some other guys. I think if you’ve got knowledge you have an obligation to share it; you pass it on for someone else to build on.

Then most importantly there’s my family, friends and leisure time. We’ve got four grandchildren, three girls and a boy which is great. The boys and their families live up in Surrey but we see them quite a lot. There is nature and the garden too. A few friends and I belong to the Devon Fly Group, we go out surveying flies—there are more than 7,000 species in Britain. And, of course we have a very active social life—we thoroughly enjoy contributing to village life. If we don’t make the future who will, I’m not standing by to let others do it, I want to be a part of it.’

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