I witness to Christ daily and sometimes I use words

Professor George Grimble, UCL Division of Medicine

Dr Mark Surey kindly invited me to speak at the Christian Academic Network conference on “Enriching Universities, as Christian Academics, in a Politically Correct World” and relate the title to my lifetime career in academia. At 68, my active work is coming to an end but I could start by saying that whilst few chose it as a means of making a fortune, we all share an insatiable quest for knowledge, which is almost like a viral infection. It makes for a certain collegiality and even now, I have the same drive for truth and knowledge in my specialist area. Who could blame me? I really enjoy attending Conferences to discuss aspects of critical care nutrition with old friends and colleagues of all beliefs and none.

My journey to the present has been by usual and unusual routes and started as one of the “clever ones” who did well academically. At 16 years of age, in my A-level year, I discovered Jesus at a Christian summer camp. You see, this religious Presbyterian boy and would-be fashion-plate recognised that Jesus was Lord and had died for my sins on the cross and that I could live a new life following Him. Well that changed many things. Although this was the 1960s and the partying continued, I found that acquisition of knowledge and the pleasure in doing so could no longer be just for myself. Instead it had to serve His purposes and with His help and companionship but there was no real guidance on how to achieve this. Outside of the caring professions where the link is more obvious, how can one know what God thinks of methyl metabolism and epigenetics or of studying the works of Nietzsche? To make things more difficult, there was competition at University College London (UCL) where many fellow students were much cleverer than I. Additionally, I had relatively weak skills in witnessing and as a scholar. What helped me was the usual student thing of intense study of a difficult subject which took no prisoners (Biochemistry) and our Christian Union in which I ended up as Secretary and also engaged in summer evangelism with Operation Mobilisation. After graduating, I wanted to pause and go away for a year’s evangelism but my prospective PhD supervisor and the Medical Research Council (MRC) took a dim view of that. So that, in a nutshell, was me, a newly-minted graduate on the threshold of an academic career.

The following narrative is written to tell you how it worked out, using case-studies and I hope you find them helpful. They are not cherry-picked for success and some have been awkward and distressing but we can always let God teach us as much from our desolations as from our consolations.

During my PhD as MRC Scholar at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, at the height of the Cold War, many of my colleagues were very left-wing.  The Head of Department was a towering figure and a kindly soul who had been a former member of the Communist Party at Cambridge in the 1930s and was consequently barred from entering the United States. Even my supervisor was on the left of the Labour Party and self-described as a “High Church atheist” having been a former member of Moral Re-Armament (an offshoot of the Oxford movement). This environment seemed hostile to Christians who were seen as both reactionary and irrelevant to global challenges whilst being too nice to engage in political action. I soon locked horns over Sunday working and after a while the Lord encouraged me to use a different approach, that of Saint Francis of Assisi.

Witness for Christ each day, and if necessary, use words”.

Within this rather difficult environment, I got on with my research and was awarded a PhD. When I left, one of my colleagues remarked that “during all of your time here George I never heard you criticise your supervisor”. We’re still all friends and meet at the Indian YMCA in Fitzroy Square for a curry lunch from time to time.

I really enjoyed a 14-year appointment as Director (Biochemical Research) at the Department of Gastroenterology and Nutrition at Central Middlesex Hospital (CMH). This District General Hospital in downtown Harlesden is a hidden gem which nurtured, amongst others generations of gastroenterologists, the Marriage Research Centre, the Sickle Cell & Thalassaemia Centre, the former UK Chief Medical Officer and also housed our laboratories. I learned how to work productively with teams of doctors, dietitians, pharmacists, nurses, medical laboratory scientific officers and patients, endlessly forming new teams for new research tasks. Since the hospital was decidedly unfashionable in the wrong part of town and professionally isolated, it kept me humble in relation to colleagues at posher university hospitals in London. This was a very productive part of my research career and I look back on it with great affection.

Less so, the invitation to run a University Department which ended disastrously. The University had a long history of industrial conflict and was being re-organised whilst also committing serious fraud over student numbers. I didn’t know this last for sure, but smelt a rat. That wasn’t the issue though. The much-loved previous HoD had died in post and I thought that the best way to rebuild this grieving group was to develop a “culture of honour “and recognise effort and achievement. This was counter-cultural to the very hard-bitten ethos of the School. A few of us started meeting to pray together. Without going into the whole story, the job ended badly after 18 months and I left on 6 months gardening leave, metaphorically “shaking the dust off my sandals”. At that unbelievably low ebb of rejection and career-crash, one of my Gujarati colleagues remarked “You know George, your job here wasn’t to convert us all to Christianity”. Whilst my mouth said, “That’s an interesting thought Dr X”, my mind said “I knew it was a spiritual battle all along”. That was because in all my time there, I’d never mentioned Jesus’s name but had determined to Witness for Christ each day, and if necessary, use words”.

More so, my promotion to Professor at UCL last year as recognition for reverse-engineering nutrition as a cognate area back into UCL. In the 1940s UCL had been pre-eminent in Nutrition because Professor Jack Drummond (Chief Scientist to the Ministry of Food), a Biochemist, had devised the wartime dietary rationing system. His boss, the Minister of Food, Lord Woolton had previously run a chain of department stores in the North of England in the 1930s. What an inspiring team! Drummond, tragically, was murdered in 1952 whilst holidaying in France and UCL didn’t really develop nutrition further despite the sterling work of David Bender and others. In 2007, With an industry grant of £20,000 (Dr Lucio Fumi) and support from a dear UCL colleague, Professor Alistair Forbes, we set about devising MSc programmes in Nutrition in the Division of Medicine using a robust and replicable programme structure which was designed for growth. We have grown from 8 students in 2008 to 115 with another 80 on a BSc in Nutrition (now in its 3rd year) and with 3 new Masters programmes to be launched soon. Can I take credit? Of course! I remember the hard work! But I have been so aware of the Lord’s hand in this venture and its success which, on reflection, would normally not happen in competitive Academia.

Firstly, I started from a position of weakness, in my late-50s with a “mixed-history”, knowing only a handful of colleagues. As an outsider, I was also unfamiliar with UCL’s political landscape. Notwithstanding this, The Lord led me to colleagues who would help deliver the programme. He kept me nimble on my feet and I could use my broad knowledge from previous CMH and Roehampton University positions. We finished 8 years later with 110 lecturers who deliver our programmes which have decisively improved the finances of the Division of Medicine.

What can we make of all of this? I’m not writing about the brilliance or shape of a career. In fact, one of my CMH colleagues, the late Dr David Lovell rather cleverly said that to describe a “career” is like writing all of the jobs you’ve ever done on a sheet of paper and then joining them up with a pencil-line in order to impart an understanding. David was restating Søren Kierkegaard’s maxim that “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards”. No, I’m writing instead about the Christian career, the scarlet thread which was interwoven with all of that. How you attempt to analyse this depends on your methodology and I will choose a brief form of qualitative research with reflective narrative. I became a convert to this 5 years ago when we investigating the diet of people attending Foodbanks and why they were there using structured interviews and thematic analysis and COM-B. The answers were “Terrible” and “No money”. The reflective narrative arose from the requirements of my application for a Senior Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy.  Initially, I hated this radical departure from the concise and efficient scientific English of biomedical publishing but, like Marmite, came to love it in the end.

As a PhD student, the most important thing was to give a faithful witness despite being in a relatively powerless position, often jokingly and unfairly referred to as “pond-life”.

Within biomedical NHS research, the most important factor was to work intelligently within a hospital framework that was tribal and highly compartmentalised. Many of our problems can arise if we don’t recognise this but still engage in tribal politics in the workplace. Funding was as problematic as for any post-Doc and often I could only see one year ahead. Many times, The Lord gave me wisdom as to which way to go to seek industrial collaborations overseas.

As Head of Department the most important thing for me was to use this powerful position to re-equip, re-organise and hopefully, re-energise a dispirited group in a conflicted university. A handful of colleagues plotted against me and plots, from their very nature, can be impossible to predict. There was a strong spiritual opposition and we used spiritual warfare. I found Dr RT Kendall’s teaching on “Total Forgiveness” to be decisive as part of recovery from an experience which threatened to crush me.

I enjoyed the sensation of having joined a leading University as an outsider, whilst also knowing that the Lord was with me. At times this feeling was almost overwhelming. To succeed, I had to grow these new programmes from scratch to self-sufficiency within 8 years, whilst identifying and recruiting my successors. It was as simple as that.

if I were to give advice to any Christian working in a hostile “politically correct” environment, it would be as follows:-

  • Quickly get to a position of not caring. By this I mean that the honour of Our Lord should be your enduring goal to which academic goals become subservient.
  • Secondly, try and avoid unnecessary conflict over “affairs of the day” in the workplace to avoid cruising for a bruising. Instead, let your actions speak along with your words of witness.
  • Lastly, excel at whatever you’re doing and communicate the excitement of this with colleagues.

Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.

Proverbs 22:29

You’ll soon find those who really matter and those who share your values. Witness does rub off you know!