Is this the greatest Australian ever?


Q: What can you do with 6 bed pans, a biscuit tin, a dog bowl, some china plates and a bronze letterbox?

A: Well, if you’re Howard Florey you could make the world’s 1st antibiotic, save over 50,000,000 lives, win the Nobel Prize, and, as a bonus, get your face on the Australian $50 note.

In 1938 Howard Florey and Ernst Chain were get-ahead medical researchers at Oxford University. They had set themselves the task of producing penicillin as the world’s 1st practical and effective antibiotic.

Discovered 11 years earlier, penicillin was proving impossible to make in useable quantities. It was an unstable mold. Added to this, enormous amounts of a moldy “soup” had to be made and this soup only produced minute amounts of the active ingredient.

There were other problems. When injected into the body, penicillin took about 4 hours to take start working but within 2 hours it had either been dissolved in the stomach or had been flushed out in the urine. Penicillin left the body before it had a chance to do its work.

And, of course, money was a problem. Florey and Chain’s application to the British Medical Society for research money resulted in a grant of $50 (even in 1938, $50 didn’t even buy a whole lot of test tubes!)

World War II broke out. Food, petrol and clothes were rationed. Medical equipment was virtually impossible to get. Resolute, Florey and Chain stuck to their task. Chain discovered that refrigeration would stabilize the mold. Since they had no fridges, they made their own. Experimenting, they found that bed pans were the best way to grow the mold (the soup could easily be poured out from underneath the mold.) So they cornered the bed pan market.

Against all odds they scrounged and improvised all the equipment they needed. Florey’s determination to get what he needed earnt him the nickname among the Oxford Scholars as “the bushranger of research”.

Florey and Chain’s first human experiment with penicillin was on a man dying from a rose thorn infection. The pair exhausted every ounce of penicillin made from months of soup making. Their meagre supplies of penicillin were so precious that they recycled the patient’s urine to capture even a speck of the antibiotic flushed out of his body.

Florey and Chain persevered. They worked and worked and worked until they discovered practical ways to make penicillin a viable, effective antibiotic. They proved you don’t need ideal conditions to succeed. Everything seemed against them yet they prevailed.

Sir Robert Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia in 1949, remarked that Howard Florey “had the essential attributes of greatness: courage, integrity, tremendous drive and unswerving sense of direction.”

Dr. John Best said that “Florey is probably the greatest Australian who has ever lived.”

Mohammed Ali was one of the greats of the square ring. He was a three-time World Heavyweight Champion boxer and winner of an Olympic Light-heavyweight gold medal. Sports Illustrated crowned him “Sportsman of the Century”. Ali was master of the lightening quick jab. He was also the master of the cutting remark. He once insulted an opponent with “If they can make penicillin out of moldy bread, they can sure make something out of you.”

Howard never had much to work with. All he had were everyday items, found in kitchens and hospital wards. Yet he developed a product that has saved millions of lives.

extract from “Stand on the Shoulders of Giants” Gerard Stevenson

© 2007 well imagine that Pty Ltd

Next Time: what are hydrogels and can they be used to repair spinal cord injuries?

Extraction at the dentist’s!


Just because you’re injured doesn’t mean you escape the important events in life. . . like going to the dentist!

While I was in hospital I did require some dental work and had a mobile dentist come and attend to that work. However, I have been keen to get back to our family dentist for a regular checkup, now sadly overdue.

Sue had been for her checkup a month earlier and did a reconnoitre to see if I would be able to get into the dentist’s rooms. She reported back that I could use the back entrance. It would be a tight squeeze but I would be able to get the chair through the doorway, down the corridors and into the surgery itself.

I would have to remain in my chair during the examination since there would be no way to hoist me into the dentist’s chair. Given the amount of forward and back tilt I have in this chair no one anticipated that this would be a problem.

I arrived at the surgery with plenty of time to navigate my way through the building. It was a tight fit. I have “puff and sip” controls on my chair. This means that I can move the chair forward, backwards, left and right by using my breath.

The controls on the chair are sensitive enough to allow me to turn around tight corners so I managed to get into the surgery. The plan was that I would park parallel to the dentist’s chair. Which I did. I was parallel but facing the wrong direction! A little bit more puffing and sipping and I was in place.

Dr Harley Moffat has been our family dentist for nearly 35 years. Needless to say we think he is a great dentist and I thought all this effort was well worth it to see him again.

After his examination on my teeth he said that I needed a small filling which could be done immediately or on the next visit.

I opted to have it done straightaway. He gave me an injection in the gum, the filling was completed easily and I was set to go home.

Then the unforeseen happened. When I tried to puff my way out of the surgery I couldn’t get the chair to move as I wanted. The left side of my gum was numb from the injection and, hard as I tried, I couldn’t move the chair forward. The right side of my gum was fine and when I blew into the straw I was like a man in a row boat with one oar, just going around in circles.

There are attendant’s controls on the back of the chair and Sue took over driving. Unfortunately she doesn’t get much practice at driving because I insist on controlling the chair all the time. Anyway, the inevitable happened and I became wedged in the doorway. Couldn’t go forward. Couldn’t go back. Stuck! Four of us were stuck were stuck. I was stuck in the doorway and Harley, Deb the dental nurse and Sue were stuck in the surgery.

We put the chair in neutral and eventually the 3 others, with a lot of pushing back and forward, got me free. Sue snaked the chair and me down the corridors and out into the waiting van.

There was an extraction that day at the dentist. I never anticipated it would be me being extracted-distracted from a doorway!

Support our supporters: Sallyanne-Reflect Photography

Reflect Photography is an award winning, boutique photography studio based in the Yarra Valley, east of Melbourne specialising in photography for businesses.

Next Time: Some consider him the greatest Australian ever. We stand on his shoulders!

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What is a tracheostomy? What is “leak” speech?

What is a tracheostomy? What is “leak” speech?

As a result of my injury the nerves controlling my diaphragm don’t work. Because my diaphragm doesn’t work neither do my lungs. As a result I now need a machine to pump air in and out of my lungs. This machine or ventilator, could be used to force air through my mouth or nose into my lungs. This would require me to wear a mask all the time, making conversation and eating impossible. Not a happy outcome!

The solution is a tracheostomy (which is what I have). A tracheostomy is a surgical incision in the windpipe (trachea) that allows a plastic tube with an inflatable cuff to be inserted into the windpipe.

The ventilator can then be attached to the plastic tube and air can be pushed in and out of my lungs, bypassing the mouth and nose. At the end of this post is part of a video that Gary Hegadus (professional film maker and good friend), my wife and I made in conjunction with the Austin Hospital. In the video Prue Gregson, Senior Speech Pathologist, with the assistance of Trache Tom (a 3-D model) explains how a tracheostomy works.

What is “leak speech”?

The cuff in my tracheostomy tube can be inflated or deflated. When the cuff is inflated air is forced directly from the ventilator in and out of my lungs. However, when the cuff is deflated air is able to leak out across my vocal chords. This leakage across my vocal cords allows me to speak. Hence the expression “leak” speech.

The video gives a visual demonstration of the plastic tube, the inflatable cuff and how air leaks across the vocal cords.

Click here to view the video.

Support our supporters

Steven Killey (Lift Me-stairlifts and low platform lifts) has been a keen and practical supporter in lots of ways. His latest venture is to raise funds for an exercise bike for me. He recently competed in the“Wings for Life” run and raised over $2000 towards the bike. For a quote on stairlifts and low platform lifts from a true professional contact Steve on 0409 931 446 or at:

Next Time: An extraction at the dentist’s

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We make the front page


Sue and I feature on the front page of the July issue of the Warrandyte Diary newspaper. Thanks to Sallyanne-Reflect Photography- for the great pic (

click here to see the front page of the Warrandyte Diary

Next time: What is a tracheostomy? What is “leak” speech?

Support our supporters

Steven Killey (Lift Me-stairlifts and low platform lifts) has been a keen and practical supporter in lots of ways. His latest venture is to raise funds for an exercise bike for me. He recently competed in the “Wings for Life” run and raised over $2000 towards the bike. For a quote on stairslifts and low platform lifts from a true professional contact Steve on 0409 931 446 or at:

We’re the superhumans!

It’s only a 3 minute video but is packed with 160 superhumans. If nothing else watch it for the high jumper, or maybe the drummer, or is it the ballroom dancing scene? I don’t know. Just watch it and be astounded.

Link to “We’re the superhumans”

Still coming: what is a tracheostomy? What is leak speech?

Support Our Supporters

Belinda has been our website designer and advisor for the last 10 years. Recently she has also become our social media consultant. She is experienced and full of good ideas. Her advice is always practical. She is always quick to respond to any questions we have with a clear explanation. You can visit Belinda’s website:

Two words that made all the difference


I spent two weeks in an intensive care unit (ICU) after my injury. The first week was in ICU at Alfred Hospital. I have no distinct memories of that week. I do have memories of the second week in ICU at the Austin Hospital. I was still obviously heavily sedated and I remember hallucinating. I would like to report that it was some sort of visionary experience with exotic images. However I can’t. I saw this pulsating, squirming wall of dark brown, black and orange living panels, both ugly and menacing.

Every few hours the nurses would turn me to prevent pressure sores developing. Unfortunately, my spinal cord was still in shock from the fall and, as a consequence, my heart was prone to stop. This had happened several times. It distressed nurses and meant I required CPR each time. It’s no fun waking up with someone standing over you saying “Ah, you back!” So, when the doctor recommended I have a heart pacer inserted to prevent this happening it was an easy decision.

I was also incredibly thirsty. I was “nil by mouth”, so I produced no saliva. This, combined with the air-conditioning, meant my mouth was always dry. I craved ice cubes to suck on. I fantasised about frozen Coke which is peculiar because I have never really been a Coke drinker-neither before going into ICU nor since leaving it.

I became an expert negotiator. With no voice, only clicks and winks, I found ways to convince nurses to give me the occasional ice cube, breaking the nil by mouth policy. Unfortunately, within minutes of finishing an ice block, the unquenchable thirst would return.

There is one indelible memory though. I was drifting in and out of consciousness. My sister had come to visit me and was about to leave. I remember nothing of the visit, how long she’d been there, anything she might have said. As she went to leave she bent over my bed as if to kiss me goodbye on the cheek. She went past my cheek, though. She stopped at my ear. She whispered two words: “Stay Strong!”

Words have power. I sometimes forget what can be achieved with our words. Words can encourage. Words can fortify our spirits. They can anchor the ship in stormy weather. And that’s what these two words “Stay Strong!” did for me. They encouraged, they fortified, they anchored me. They were a vote of confidence! They were a simple reminder that I had the strength to get through this. Bravo!

Next time: John Flynn somehow, against all odds, started the Flying Doctors in the Australian outback. We discover his secret.

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Barb and Frank Ryan have been strong supporters from day 1, with Barb visiting me daily in the first months. Even now they visit once, more often than not twice a week. Frank (Ryans Law Offices) provided invaluable advice in the early days of fundraising as well as sourcing items for the fundraiser. You can contact Frank for legal advice on 0408 810 854


He drives a car with his eyes

Gerard Stevenson at Austin Hospital with nurses

Dr Jordan Nguyen is a biomedical engineer. Riley Saban is a 13-year-old kid with cerebral palsy. Together they develop extraordinary, cutting edge technology that gives young Riley superhuman powers.

Riley uses his eyes to achieve incredible effects. I encourage you to watch these videos because they demonstrate the amazing pace at which technology is providing solutions for people who have very limited movement.

Of course I have a particular interest in this story myself because I use my own eyes to navigate around my computer.

More than this though, its a great story about the power of infectious enthusiasm. It’s up to you to judge who has most infectious enthusiasm!

You can watch the story about Riley on ABC iview. To do so, go to ABC iview, click on programs, go to Catalyst, click on Superhuman part 1

or simply click on the links below

Part 1:

Part 2:

Next time: The two words when I was in ICU that made all the difference.

Support Our Supporters

Belinda has been our website designer and advisor for the last 10 years. Recently she has also become our social media consultant. She is experienced and full of good ideas. Her advice is always practical. She is always quick to respond to any questions we have with a clear explanation. You can visit Belinda’s website:

Lemons to lemonade


“Stand on the shoulders of giants” was not only Sir Isaac Newton’s mantra, it was his advice to anyone who wanted to make prodigious progress.

John McArthur is a giant in the Australian wool industry. He is also a giant when it comes to how to recover from a major setback. Separated from his family and his life’s work by his own volatility, not once but twice, he refused to accept defeat. He refused to wallow in self-pity. More than that though, he took full advantage of the new situation he found himself in and revelled in it.

So I take my inspiration from John McArthur. Refuse to accept defeat. Refuse to wallow in self-pity. Search for the advantage in this situation.

Next time: He drives a car with his eyes

Still to come

  • They serve up chalk. . . and I eat it
  • The nurse who skipped for joy
  • How to eat an elephant

John McArthur-lemonade maker

John McAuthur Stand on the shoulders of giants

Australia’s first lemonade maker

History – and my history teachers – have not been kind to John McArthur. He might have kickstarted the Australian wool industry, but he has generally been portrayed as self-serving, volatile and arrogant. It seems there wasn’t much he wouldn’t do to turn a dollar. He smudged the lines when it came to corruption and bribery.

Yet there is an aspect of his life that gets little credit. John McArthur was a great lemonade maker.

The McArthurs arrived as part of the 2nd fleet in Botany Bay in 1790. John settled down to carve out a military career. He made a lot of money … and a lot of enemies, including a string of governors. But in 1801 he went too far. Never the diplomat, he wounded his commanding officer in a duel, and was transported back to England for trial.

He was away for 4 years. When he did return home he managed to behave himself for three years but then things came to a head with Governor Bligh. This little fracas ended up as the infamous Rum Rebellion.

The New South Wales Army Corp deposed Bligh and McArthur found himself appointed Colonial Secretary. While hundreds of petty criminals were being transported to Australia as a punishment for their crimes, this escapade scored John McArthur another dose of reverse transportation where he was sent back to England for eight years trying to clear his name.

Now you could forgive McArthur for giving up at this point. He was trying to breed a new type of sheep from thousands of miles away. He was virtually out of touch all the time. His only method of communication was letters and it often took more than a year for him to get a reply. He went for years without seeing any of the sheep he was trying to breed.

But John was a lemonade maker. When life coughed up lemons … he made lemonade.

McArthur used his first stint back in England to maximum advantage. On the boat trip, he befriended the son of Sir Walter Farquahar, physician to the Prince of Wales. When he arrived in England, John went to see Sir Walter and brought him news of his son’s progress. Sir Walter subsequently introduced John to key members of the British government who championed his cause.

John McArthur could not have arrived back in England at a better time. England imported most of its fine wool from Spain, but the Napoleonic war had severely disrupted supply. Woollen mills were desperate for a steady supply of fine wool.

When McArthur met with representatives of the wool staplers of England, he convinced them that he was the absolute authority on Australian wool.

This meeting lead to a submission to the Privy Council, and a recommendation from that Council to the British Government, that Australia be financially encouraged to develop its fine wool industry.

Not only did he avoid going to trial,  John McArthur convinced the government of the day to support his efforts to build a national flock of fine wool  merinos. He triumphantly sailed back to Botany Bay in his own ship, the “Argo” (Jason and the Argonauts sailed in the original “Argo” in their quest to find the Golden Fleece). He brought with him breeding merinos from the King’s own royal flock. The King’s flock was considered a national treasure and this was the first time any of these sheep were allowed to leave England. John also returned with a grant for 2000 hectares of the Colony’s best pastures!

McArthur’s second stint in England was just as fruitful. He became the sales and marketing department for his own wool. He developed new markets. He studied every aspect of the textile industry. He worked with clothing manufacturers assessing their needs. His letters home were full of valuable information on how to best clean and prepare wool for sale. In 1821 McArthur’s wool was being bought at auction for 10s 4d /lb, five times the price achieved by other colonial wool growers.

It wasn’t John’s choice to spend all this time away from the farm. When he was transported back to England it must have looked like lemons all the way. It just goes to show you what can be done, even with a load of lemons, when you put your mind to it.

Next time: My mission? Turn my lemons into sweet lemonade!

Coming Soon

How to drive a car with just your eyes

Two words that make all the difference to me in ICU

A Crucial Decision


It’s decision time

The man is airlifted to hospital. There, in ICU, he is stabilised. Emergency surgery is performed on the lacerations at the back of his head.

Because of the damage to his spinal cord his diaphragm doesn’t work. He’s kept alive by a machine pushing air in and out of his lungs. Because air now bypasses his vocal chords he can’t speak.

The injuries are bad. Very bad. And permanent.

The doctor and the man’s wife come to his bedside. A conversation takes place. The man no longer recalls that conversation. His wife certainly does.

The man has a choice. And the options could not be starker. On the one hand he can live. Paralysed from the neck down. Dependent on a machine for breathing. The other choice is to ask for the machine to be turned off. Let nature take its course. Does he “go on” or does he simply “let go”?

The man doesn’t hesitate. He cannot speak but his eyes widen. His jaw sets. His intentions are clear. Unequivocal. He goes on. He chooses life. He wants to live.

He has no idea of the challenges that lie ahead. He has no idea of the massive challenges his family will face. Undaunted, he says “Yes” to life. To living. More than anything he chooses to be with the three. The three he loves above all else.

Next time:

I take inspiration from John McArthur, the lemonade maker

Still to come:

  • I learn to talk
  • I eat chalk
  • The nurse who skipped for joy

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