Friends of mine, in both the real and cyberworlds, might be wondering what I’m on about talking and posting about Mosquito Day. This year’s event is called “Binkie Meets the Tsar” and if by chance they knew that August 20th was the anniversary of the discovery in 1897 of the mosquito as the vector of malaria, even scientific types might be forgiven for wondering ‘who the blazers this Binkie fellow is. Could it be a family name for Sir Ronald Ross, our first nobel laureat of science and the man who made that discovery one August afternoon in Calcutta? History tells us that Sir Ronald was quite a serious chap so unlikely he would go by such a jolly moniker – I suspect even the customary abbreaviation to Ronnie would fail to amuse.
The story of Binkie and my relationship with him started sometime in early 2009: I had been working at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine for a few months. Ostensibly a temp0rary position working for Professor Chris Whitty of the School’s Malaria Centre had turned into an ongoing part time job. I liked Chris instantly and felt at home in the accademic world, even though I had fairly recently spent a year refining my classical acting technique at Central School of Speech and Drama in the hope that, finally, I would consider myself a ‘proper’ actress now that I had a conservatoire training under my belt. I well remember one of our first exchanges when I arrived to fill in as his PA whilst waiting for Chris to recruit a ‘proper’ secretary – Prof: “so, Rebecca, how long are you free for?” Me”Well Chris, I’m an actress so potentially the rest of my life”….little did I know that 7 plus years on, those words would resonate in my ears for better or sometimes it does feel, for worse. But I digress and you’re busy so let’s cut to the chase. Sometime during those first early months, I came across a sepia tinted postcard from the School Archives showing what was clearly a 1930’s tea party and celebration. Ladies in foxfurs and cloche hats and gentlemen in tuxedos stared seriouly out at me. The table groaned under the weight of champagne bottles and flutes, bunches of grapes and savory delights. On the walls were maps and charts, and at the back amongst the palmtrees, three Indian gentlemen stood to attention alongside two other waiters in their penguin suits. So far, so usual – the standards of colonial life were being upheld and life was still lived on the hog in those blessed interwar years that the ladies’s fashions denoted. What drew my attention away from all the finery and piqued my curiostiy was this: sitting down’stage right’ on his own plinth, cocking the snook to Lord Snooty et al, a slightly scruffy but clearly much-petted terrier dog claimed his place at the table. Next to him a woman in some sort of nurses outfit laid a propriatorial hand on the scruff of his neck, tuning her back on the rather handsome, Italian-looking chap to her right. Clearly this dog had the run of them all and saw his place at the table as his birthright.
The picture made the smile, the contrast between the solemnity of the occasion and the absurdity of a dog on his throne whetted my appetite to find out more. Turning the postcard over, the caption read “Tiffin: Mosquito Day at the Ross Institure 1931”. Tiffin, Mosquito Day, a rafish dog…. No wonder the song went “Mad dogs and Englishmen”….twinned eccentrics in a midday sun which was deemed never to set. In time, I was able to discover more about those dinner guests and so my life at the School became populated with Mary Gray, Matron of the Institute, Sir Ronald Ross (you’ll see him white haired and moustacheoed with his napkin tucked into his suit jacket) and finally Binkie, Matron’s dog who lived in her quarters at the Ross Institute in Putney, scene of this Mosquito Day tea to mark the annual celebration of August 20th 1897. The photo was taken only a couple of years before Sir Ronald’s death and at a time when he was railing against the government and other authorities who failed to recognise and financially compensate a life lived in service of the British Medical Service.
The Ross Collection is held at the London School of Tropcial Medicine and over the years I have ploughed through boxes and papers, journals and letters picking out tasty morcels to serve up to the public, staff and students who come to our Annual Mosquito Day celebrations. Held in the wood-pannelled Library at our Keppel Street Headquarters, the modern incarnation of Mosquito Day is an effectionate tribute to the spirit of the original – the veracity of the science mixed with the humorous joy I felt at seeing a dog on a plinth and a table groaning with food. For grapes and sweatmeats we have canapes, buns and cake and we substitute gin & tonic for buckets of champagne. It has been my joy and privilage to host these events, bringing into the School a new audience from tea-dancers to murder mystery fanatics, always ably supported by the School’s Malaria Centre and External Relations team in shows performed by dear friends, talented actors and musicians. Who knows what I’d be doing now if I hadn’t fallen under Binkie’s spell – like Matron turning her back willingly on her handsome neighbour, I’m sometimes too distracted to look around me to see if there are other, more glamourous and dramatic work opportunites on my doorstep but, like Binkie, I really rather enjoy the fuss and quite like being “just eccentric enough”.