Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Cockroach Catcher

The Central American Giant Cockroach, Blaberus giganteus, is considered one of the largest cockroaches in the world, with males being able to reach lengths of 7.5 cm and females 10 cm. This cockroach belongs to the family Blaberidae.

Chapter 4   The Cockroach Catcher

The ability to dissect out a full set of cockroach salivary glands was a prerequisite requirement for medical school entrance in Hong Kong in our days.   It is almost a 180 degree turn around nowadays when many young doctors have no idea about the biological world we live in.  Nearly all Medical Schools in England no longer specify biology as a prerequisite subject for anybody who wishes to embark on the study of the human body.  As we are so intertwined with the rest of the living biological world I find this policy quite extraordinary.
         Do you think that there is a conspiracy to limit our knowledge so that everything can be kept under control?  Or do you think political correctness has run amok and medical schools dare not exclude people for their dislike of the natural world?
         But why should there be a conspiracy about anything at all?  Foolhardiness is sometimes seen by too many clever people as conspiracy.
         I have my own theory of cockroach salivary glands.
         In our days in Hong Kong, there was only one single medical school and many bright pupils fought to get a place. So it was highly competitive. Most years the intake was for about sixty five as there was a limit in the anatomy dissection room. Dissecting the salivary glands requires not only anatomical knowledge of the said cockroach but also a degree of manual dexterity.
         So there you have it. Manual dexterity is required in many branches of medicine. Little did our teachers know in those days that those same salivary glands are now being studied for neuro-transmitters. Without this knowledge, there would have been a delay in the creation of Prozac. Would that have been a blessing or a curse?
         Insects, on the other hand, are very much enjoying a comeback. Come to think of it, they have never gone away. True to form as a good predator, they are not only capable of transmitting diseases, but are also able to do so without even causing much discomfort in their prey sometimes for as long as twenty years. You may think this happens only in Africa or deep in the rainforests of South America and East Asia. Not so.  What about Blue Nile in Manhattan; Japanese encephalitis in Hong Kong; and Dengue in a wide tropical band that spreads from Hawaii to Indonesia?
         There is always Malaria.
         So do we believe that we can be doctors without knowing too much about insects[1]?
         As it happens, when my family eventually left the city of Kowloon for the rural New Territories in the early fifties, we rented a semi-restored village stone house half way up the hill in a small village called Kam Shan (literal translation being “forbidden hill”, although some years later it was changed to “beautiful hill” as the two Chinese words sound very similar). 
         Each night when the kerosene lights were blown out, within minutes the cockroaches would be out in force. They would be after any leftover crumbs, rice or any traces of cooking oil or sauces.  Leftover food inside the food cupboard still attracted cockroaches, which attached themselves to the netting in their eager attempt to get in. They could spend a long time trying and such insect behaviour was closely observed by me from an early age.
         I still vaguely remember the few times when the family returned to our ancestral home in the village of Chun Nim. The excitement of the new environment meant that I would refuse to fall asleep. The maid at the time would carry me on her back in a silk sling. She would alternate between singing a Teochiu[2] lullaby and producing her ultimate weapon – a huge live cockroach kept in a match box. Just as well they did not have child psychiatrists in those days or I would have been pronounced traumatised for life with a specific phobia of cockroaches.
         As it turned out I became a cockroach catcher. I developed different ways of catching them without causing any damage and the best was to use milk powder tins.  Some left over rice used to do wonders.
         You would not be surprised that these same cockroaches put me ahead of others in my ultimate pursuance of a medical career. Inadvertently, I became the sole purveyor of huge live cockroaches and the sole supplier to the rest of my class. I also became the unofficial guide for our class biology field trips.  Our biology teacher used to leave it to me to take her and the rest of the class to prime sites for the study of wild plants and pond life.
         I did secretly practise on the dissection of the said insect and getting good marks for biology was never a problem.

[1] Doctors do not have to know about insects:  a number of Medical Schools in the UK no longer require A level Biology. Johns Hopkins Medical School still requires Biology so did the majority of US medical schools.

[2] Teochiu dialect – Teochiu, also called Chaozhou, Teochew, Teochiu, Tiuchiu, or Diojiu, is a dialect of the Chinese spoken variant of Min Nan, spoken in the Chaoshan region of eastern Guangdong.  Both my parents originated from this region.

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