Alan Lucas

Old Bedalian 1964

“There were two very distinct, very different parts to my childhood,” Alan Lucas recalls. Professor Lucas is back at Bedales to deliver a lecture and the energy is visibly coursing through him as he assists his memories by striding around our meeting room. “My father left the family home when I was two years old and my mother took me up to Leeds, where she was effectively a single parent who was often absent from home. In time, I went to a pretty rough local school, where many pupils were orphans, and I led what I would term a rather feral existence. Certainly I don’t recall anything as civilised as books in our house at the time!”

By the time that Alan had reached the age of nine, his father stepped in and had determined that his son was in need of some intellectual refurbishment. “Dad was a medic and a psychoanalyst, a very intelligent man, and he decided that I would benefit from life at a more liberal school, which was where Bedales came in,” Alan explains. “I went down to Dunhurst, saw Mr. Hogg and I suspect that it was the interview that persuaded the school to take a punt on me, though a year later I nearly managed to fail my 11+ exam.”

Alan’s somewhat shaky academic start to life appeared to be set to continue, at least initially, at Bedales. “I had no great interest academically, that’s for sure,” he confesses. “I was pretty good at art and I loved swimming, at which I was captain and managed to set a few records for the breaststroke, but I didn’t work too hard and I did virtually no revision for my O-Levels at all.” Not unnaturally, Alan’s results were a somewhat mixed bag in consequence, although there was the shining exception of a top mark in biology: “I hadn’t seen myself as an academic at all but Andrew Routh was an utterly inspirational teacher and had the rare knack of making biology appear fascinating without pushing his pupils excessively.”

Just before those O-Levels, however, Alan had experienced a Road to Damascus moment that would entirely change the way in which he viewed work and academia: “My physics teacher, Bill Crocker, had been doing a lot of talking on some subject and set us an essay. My response was to ask whether I really had to write this essay and Bill Crocker’s reply has always stayed with me: ‘who the hell do you think that you’re working for – you or me?’ It was a light bulb moment and from the start of the sixth form, I found a new drive to work properly - for myself - and not just to please someone else.”

This is something of an understatement. Alan’s new regime involved rising at 5am, going for a three-mile run and then working on biology until breakfast. “All this meant that I missed most of the compulsory morning activities that I was supposed to be doing, accumulated a tremendous number of black marks and was subsequently punished each weekend with extra work as a result,” he laughs. “The community service style punishments eventually stopped but my new-found sense of self-motivation didn’t. I was actually doing botany, zoology and art at A-Level, which was a nice mix, and I never felt for one moment that sciences were marginalised at Bedales. People that made the most of themselves among my contemporaries were often scientists.  I do remember our tutor at Clare writing to Bedales and asking the school to send them more students like me and my Bedales friend Tim Rink, with whom I’d gone up to Cambridge.”

Alan is quick to pay tribute to an atmosphere at school that allowed him to follow the slightly eccentric course that he had set for himself. “Bedales let me develop as I wanted and I have to conclude that it worked because I managed to get straight A’s and a place at Clare College, Cambridge to study biology and medicine”. Alan received high First Class honours in each year at Cambridge, for which he was awarded a Foundation Scholarship; subsequently he was awarded a scholarship to Oxford University clinical school. He believes that “it is highly likely that this would not have happened at a different school and I must say that I used the opportunities on offer at Bedales to their maximum. Bedales became my home and my family and I remain immensely grateful for that to this day.”

Cambridge University would be the first step in an astonishing successful career for Alan Lucas, including a Wellcome Research Fellowship at Oxford and a lectureship at Cambridge University’s Medical School, as well as becoming Head of Infant and Child Nutrition at the Dunn Nutrition Unit of the Medical Research Council (MRC). In 1996, he would found the MRC Research Centre at the Institute of Child Health and Great Ormond Street for Children. “In many ways, my life at Bedales influenced the way in which I set up that research centre,” Alan reflects. “Some of the principles that Bedales sought to embody were a driving force for the work ethos and atmosphere that I hoped to foster; I wanted people to enjoy their work because people thrive in a happy environment. Like Bedales, it was liberated and therefore more productive. It was also avowedly non-hierarchical, without an overarching superstructure, and a real team.”

Over nearly 40 years, Alan Lucas’s research has generated over 400 publications in his specialist field and he is now seen as a father figure of modern paediatric nutrition.  He has made numerous landmark discoveries, including the impact of early nutrition on later cardiovascular risk factors, vascular health, brain development, bone health and allergies. The revolutionary idea that rapid, as opposed to slower, growth during the critical window in early post-natal life increases the risk of later cardiovascular disease and obesity followed from Alan’s work and has greatly influenced public health practice internationally. His accomplishments would have been greeted with some bewilderment by his teenage self: “I could never have pictured what has happened to me,” he grins, “not least because I’ve always expected to fail every exam that I’ve ever sat, even though I have now become a buoyant, more optimistic person.  But my persisting drive, derived from Bedales, has never involved being competitive against others, only against my own expectations of myself.”

A stream of awards has come Alan’s way in recognition of his career. Of relevance to his Bedales connection was his award of the James Spence medal, the highest in the gift of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health for lifetime contributions to paediatrics. “When I stepped up to the podium to receive my medal from Princess Anne, I could only think that I owed it to Andrew Routh and I went to see him soon afterwards,” Alan relates. “The first thing that I told him was that we had won a medal and it was a very gratifying moment for both of us.

It is a reminder of the esteem in which Alan holds the place that shaped his educational philosophy, an affection which is heightened on this day that he returns to Bedales. “I feel the same positive atmosphere today that I always remember,” he says. “The core of the buildings and the spirit of the place seem unchanged to me. It’s extraordinarily evocative – I feel that I can almost exactly reconstruct scenes from my past life here. There’s a sense of something that you could only call love for the place among those who have been here.  I like to think this is something that holds true for the research centre that I founded on Bedalian principles. Real work, you see, is, and ought to be, a pleasure. Bedales taught me that and that’s why, at the age of 69, I’m still working as hard as I did 30 years ago. The day that I stop working will be the day that I’ve died!”