Soham Grammarians - 2017 Luncheon Talk
to Soham Old Grammarians, 7th October 2017

by Professor Geoff Fernie SG59

This is a slightly abridged version of Geoff's talk.
Much more can be learned about the work of Toronto Rehab by visiting the links at the end of this page.

Frank Haslam SG'59' introduced our speaker

You are going to enjoy Geoff's talk, you really are. 

Geoff was in my year and was there through to the Sixth Form.

He has come over from Toronto.

He has brought his Mum who still plays golf, three times a week I think.

Mrs Ena Fernie and her son Geoff: photo Dannie Nicholas
If you think that this is a theoretical talk about ageing and how to do it gracefully, just keep looking at him - maybe the thought will cross your mind that if he could put in in a bottle and sell it to us, a queue would form instantly (laughter).

Geoff, over to you.

Thanks Frank. Let's have a bit of fun.
During this presentation I will not mention everyone's name in the room. Don't take offence at that.
Even if you taught me, don't take offence at that - you've had your chance, of giving me a low mark -
you could do it once more I suppose ...

Professor Geoff Fernie BSc (Sussex), PhD (Strathclyde), FCAHS, PEng, CEng

So let's adventure a little bit. I started off living above the Trustee Savings Bank, if you know where Prezzo's is now in Ely.

There's my mother looking up in the direction. 

That's when I came to this school in the first form, and then we moved to Downham Road.

A big influence in my life was my Dad.

Many of you knew my Dad, actually, Roy.

This is one of my trips to the Netherlands, I do quite a bit of work there. This is the field where his bomber crashed.

That's my Dad, he was a hero of mine.

The arrow, that's the groove in the ground made by the bomber as it slid across the ground and ended up against the front door of the house next to it.

It has been wired off ever since. There is a plaque there. Many of you have parents and other friends who fought in the Second World War and who ended up in Europe.

You'll know how carefully they tend their graves and memorial sites [scroll down the page in that link to Halifax crash remembered 70 years on].

It's quite impressive.

[Frank adds: 15 Oct 1942: target Cologne:
Halifax W1108 NP-E of 158 Sqn. The Navigator, Sgt RB Fernie RAFVR, alone survived. (inset: post-1942 photo, Roy Fernie, Caterpillar badge on his tie)]

This of course was the next big influence in my life. Looked at better from this angle.

Now there were only two bad things that happened to me at Soham. One was on almost the first day. There, where that star is. I was bullied. I don't remember who it was ... but if I could find out (laughter) this would be the time to sort it out.

The second was  ... at that time, Edward Armitage, who I loved very dearly, had his office there [where the arrow is] - later it was a classroom ... I had to go and see him and I walked into his office very nervously ... and farted (laughter).

Rod, please extend my apologies to the family.

Eventually, Edward, as we know, moved up to The Turret where he could watch all of us. Properly.

So there we are.

There is Ted. You notice that all of the nicknames are kind nicknames, they are affectionate names. You remember many of them.  

I always used to read the sign at the entrance to the school. I didn't have to look this up. This is from memory after 58 years. It read 'Headmaster E.A. Armitage B.Sc (Lond), M.A. (Cantab), J.P.' I think. And that was when I decided I needed to get some letters behind my name (laughter).  

Of course they were tough. Although I was privileged to see a softer side. Charlie Ford had a pretty intimate relationship with our family because Charlie and Sid Saunders used to meet with my Dad every Friday night for Bridge.

RAT - just his initials. We all adored RAT. These guys were really dedicated to the job. They believed in what they were doing. The nickname was an affectionate name, it was RAT (laughter).

Punch Lawrance had this aura of ... (someone calls out 'sadism' - laughter) ... aura of dominance ... but nevertheless he never hit anyone, and he was very, very devoted. He actually campaigned hard for his students, some people thought over-hard, but every student got top marks in the O Level exams with him. I admired that man greatly. He went on to be a Principal here at the Village College.

Then of course there is Slug Riley, a very wise man - he often came out with terrific wisdom, just such a genuine person.

Now Mr Tabraham didn't have a nickname as far as I know, he was much too correct (cries of 'Tabby') - Oh, he didn't for me. He was always in a suit. He loved technology. He always had a sharpened pencil in his top pocket. The mark of an engineer was the sharpened pencil in the top pocket. It was through him I grew to love technology and I grew to love that culture and discipline of technology, the precision of technology. Tabby would talk to us about the different uses of British Standard and Whitworth threads for ever and it was close to his soul.

Gordon is missing from this photo [he wasn't here then], Gordon Hemmings. He also had a big influence on my life, we'll talk about him later.


Back: ACV Foster - CR Waller - KD Drake - G Phythian - L Kitchen - EH Tabraham
Middle: FK Webb - AF Pusey - E Quinn - AE Lawrance - RN Joiner - SR Saunders
Front: RA Taylor - TL Riley - E Armitage - CJ Ford - RL Thomas
source: School History

This guy wasn't a teacher but he had a huge influence on my life. John Dimmock.

Do you know what he did? He taught me how to put a plug on.

I'll explain to you. We used to do the lighting here in this hall.

He's reminded me we had a ladder and it wasn't quite tall enough and we used to put a box on top of it to reach the lights!

If you look on the third post back from the stage in here, there are still marks on the third post back on each side.
That's because Edward Armitage hated people to have shadows under their eyes so we had to put lights low down to demolish the shadows under their eyes. So we did that.

John had a big impact on my life because when we left here and I went to university at Sussex I was never a very good student, I really wasn't - I loved theatre lighting. I couldn't do theatre myself because I couldn't remember any lines, but I loved theatre and I loved lighting.

While at university, with two other guys that I studied with, we formed Gnome Lighting and we got the contract to do the special effects for Top of the Pops, which was the biggest audience show.

So for two years we used to go up to Shepherd's Bush every Wednesday and do the lighting for Top of the Pops and that was at just the time when they were starting to get psychedelic lighting.

We think we were the first people to do lighting tied automatically to the music and stuff.

We also did a thing called the Simon Dee Show and I also did lighting with Pink Floyd and Procul Harum in concert.

I was a roadie, right, I did the lighting and it used to take most of the week to prepare, so the marks suffered a little.

My sister, you may remember, was Head Girl at Ely High School when I was Head Boy here. Her name is Judie.

We both got places at Sussex University. Like most brothers and sisters, we did not always get on perfectly with each other (laughter). We are now the best of pals.

We went off to the same university, in the same Department, with the same personal tutor, amazingly. And the coincidences go on, run through our lives.

I won't mention all of them but at one point for a variety of reasons she ended up in apartment next door to me in Toronto and then she was offered a job in Los Angeles in the Cardiac Centre there which was a leading Centre for Cardiac Research.

My best friend was the Head of Cardiac Instrumentation there and I was offered the job of Head of Cardiac BioMechanics. The three of us would have worked together and none of us could tolerate it. We each had to be The Boss. The coincidence was quite extraordinary.

But anyway, coming back to this picture.

These are our graduation pictures. Despite all the lighting you'll see my sister has an 'arrow' through her head. The lighting for the photography was pretty awful. But you will notice that even though it was taken with the same set-up I did not have an arrow through my head.

And that's because my mother had the photograph doctored by a photographer who not only took out the arrow through my head but also shortened my hair. My hair was down to my shoulders (laughter).

I was rescued.

I had a personal tutor who thought my life was going to be wasted.

He sent me to a place called Chailey Heritage for my last Summer. It was a school for kids with disabilities, in the Sussex countryside. It was a school, cum hospital, cum home. At the time it was quite a shock to go there. There were kids with hydrocephalus, before we had shunts, they had huge heads. Kids were there as a result of Thalidomide, about 7 years old, their mothers had taken it. 

I adore children. I became very attached to the Thalidomide kids. My job was to help develop artificial limbs for them. I was the first student there. There was one technician, one engineer, they had just started a laboratory there. There was no accommodation so they cleared one of the nursing unit offices on a ward as a bedroom for me. I'd be up in the middle of the night to help change the kids.

It was glorious there and I thought this is what I want to do. I want to use technology to try and work with these kids.  So I went off to Glasgow [to do a PhD]

You may remember when I was here I wasn't very good at school sports. I couldn't catch a ball and I couldn't run. I used to love sailing. I used to sail at Ely with Stuart Porter and I continued to sail.

I found a six metre with some friends that was wrecked in Belfast at the time of the Troubles. We dragged it into the water and sailed it up the Clyde. We did some work on it, it was a famous boat. Then we sailed it across the North Sea up the Norwegian coast and up Hardanger Fjord, had some real adventures and then came back to the Shetlands.

It could have been the end of my life actually, twice by then, but by good fortune we survived these various adventures.

Ely Sailing Club

Our 6 metre boat

I went on to do high speed racing and was the North American Champion
- for one day - in the 505 Class (laughter).

A 505 Class race

I love sailing.

I now have a cottage in Toronto, which Alan Hill [also over from Toronto] will tell you is one of the good things about Toronto.

There are tough things about Toronto.  There are eight months of winter, two of indifferent weather and two like a Chinese Laundry.

But what's great about it is that you can get away, not very far, about an hour and a half.

I get up there most weekends.

So this is my bay. That's my dock, my beach. You can't do that in Europe.   And I have 13 old boats there.

A view of the dock from my cottage

And that's the Fall, the Autumn.

The colours there are just magnificent, really red, bright red.

And that's the Winter.

That's from a drone. I like to play with things that fly, as well.

So that's what it looks like in the Winter there.

I also like to build models. This is why I am not going to retire because for me retirement would be pretty dangerous. I love building models.

This is about an 8 foot wing span, it weighs 30 something odd pounds.

I'm not very good at flying but I spend a lot of time fixing them up. It's good that Dick [Bozeat] taught me some things to do with woodwork and stuff.

I fly them off the lake.

I even for while decided to learn hang-gliding, running off hills and cliffs.

Then I had kids and decided not to do it any longer because every single person in my class was in hospital except me. And I'd had a crash, sort of hurt myself a bit.

Now I do it in a much more sedate way. I'm taking my Pilot's Licence in a little Cessna.

I take it at an airport, this is Toronto, the Island Airport.

Here you are looking back from the Island Airport towards the city.

I live on the left hand side of this picture at the top of one of the buildings right close to the water.

by day

and at night

Not all of my life has been happy.

I had two children. One of them, Jason, had a playground accident at the age of eight. He had a serious head injury. He eventually graduated from university.

He was at home with us one day - there he is with my Mum, a very big guy - he had a seizure which we didn't witness and he died. So that was sad.

Many of you knew my sister. She lives in Maui [one of the Hawaiian islands] now.

This is from her house, looking over some of the best windsurfing water in the world.

That's her.

She has to decide every day whether she's going to paddle board, or windsurf and whether she'll windsurf with a foil on the bottom or not.

That's her [on the left] foiling about 20 inches above water height in a very, very high sea.

She's 67. She's the only woman that I know of in Hawaii who does windsurfing on a foil.

This is where I am. It's one of four hospitals that form part of the University Health Network [UHN] in Toronto.

I started the research there in 2003. We are now the top rehab research centre in the world - that's on the basis that we publish more than anywhere else, we are cited more than anywhere else.

We have grown very quickly.

My main concern is about growing old.

All the adverts talk about the joys of growing old, but you all know that growing old is crap (laughter).

It's not nice at all. 

There are a lot of things we have to put up with.

It's better to celebrate it than not to grow old, but it is still hard work.

So I call them my customers. I don't call them my patients. Because I look after them as hospital patients but I am much more concerned not only about them but about preventing people from ever becoming patients, helping people to stay out in the community, living successfully on their own.

So the kind of people that I look after worry about things like What if I break my hip like my mother did? Who has a had a mother or father that broke their hip? Raise your hand. Look around, it's very common. Did any of those get back to walking normally? Well I can see one hand raised.  You really don't want to fall over and break your hip.

I don't want to be a burden on my kids. No one wants to be a burden on their kids. At the moment I am particularly worried about the women in families. They are giving up their social lives, giving up  their financial lives, giving up their freedom to look after their parents and their husbands.

In Toronto at least 29% of our population are caring for someone in need of care. This is not just looking after a kid, this is looking after a senior or a person with a disability, and that's going to grow.

I worry that they'll take my car keys away. People dread that.

I don't want to live in a nursing home.  What we fear is that we live in a nice house, we've gathered together the mementoes of our kids, we are friendly with the neighbours, people come and visit us, we might golf or something - and we are scared that one day we will end up in a hospital and from hospital we'll end up in a nursing home.

We'll find ourselves in 200 square feet of a room sitting in the middle, in a wheelchair, waiting for someone to take us to the toilet. That's not what we want, right?

So that's really what I am about, what my Institute is about trying to prevent.

So in very large measure,
continued independence depends on the ability to
remain mobile,

In my Unit we explore balance, we explore hazards and how to help to keep people mobile.

This is one of the labs. It has a big flat floor that can move unexpectedly in various directions and we have studied how people cope with being put out of balance.

We can simulate a trip by pulling back suddenly, a slip by coming forward.

We can build structures on it and test various methods of preventing falls. 

So there are various things which we have to do.

We worry about stairs, we worry about bathrooms, how we stand up, how we sit down, slipping on floors and certainly where I am, we have to worry about Winter.

There's a gerontologist in London, Professor Anthea Tinker, she sent her graduate students to older people living in their homes in England to ask them what they worried about.

What do you think they worried about? You should have a clue (laughter).

The first thing was they were not worried about their health, and it wasn't their money.

It was their stairs. More people were worried about their stairs than their health or their wealth.

They knew if they couldn't cope with them they would probably have to move into a bungalow or do something.

Stairs are the most common site of accidental falls.

One of the things my team has done, we have recently provided the evidence for changing the Building Code in Canada, making the steps a little bit deeper, only an inch and three quarters, but it trebles the safety of stairs. That doesn't affect you directly but all Building Codes eventually follow each other around the world.

We know in our little country, which has a third of the population of the UK, that will save 29 lives and 13,000 serious injuries in the first five years and 100,000 serious injuries by 2040.

So you can do big things, have a big effect, if you work on prevention.

We do a lot of things by modelling, we call it Biomechanics these days.

Bathrooms are very dangerous places, stepping in and out of bathtubs and showers.

So here is one of the platforms set up as a bathroom. This lady is holding on to a grab bar and she's able to get in if it is a vertical one, safely, and able to get out safely. 

Here she is going to try and reach for the grab bar on the other side
.... and she falls.

So we are busy providing the evidence to change the Building Code in 2020 to make it mandatory to put in bathroom grab bars, in Canada and say how much strength they should have and where they should be.

I have 120 graduate students and postdocs.

They lead a fun life but they are sometimes a little adventurous.

They are doing their Masters and PhDs.

We model the various circumstances to produce the evidence we want to make these practical changes.

This is one of my labs. We have got 8 simulators.

This is HomeLab, it's on the 12th floor, built out of regular house materials.

We have hidden all sorts of things in the walls because in the future homes are going to become smarter, they are going to watch you all the time and check our health and call the right people and stuff.

While we are taking about mobility, this was many years ago - this wasn't my invention, it was invented in a province in the middle of Canada - but I commercialised it so you people could buy it. 

It is simply a pole that wedges between the floor and the ceiling, like you see on construction sites. But it has got a gauge so you put the right pressure on and it doesn't damage the ceiling. You can put it anywhere.

It has turned out there's 150,000 to 200,000 of these (and knock-offs) sold a year now which make a huge difference to being able to get up and move around, because you don't have to have a grab bar against the wall.

You want to get up from your chair or you want to get down on the toilet and there was no easy way of putting in something to grab.

One of the things that really irritated me is that every Winter in our little Province of 12 million people, about 21,000 end up in Emergency Rooms because they have fallen over on snow and ice.

That always struck me as pretty stupid.

If you look at their shoes, they're awful, absolutely hopeless.

You'd never drive a car with tyres that had that little adhesion to the ground.

And some of these people are disabled for life - that's it.   

I went out and bought some of the most expensive boots I could find, winter boots, top of the line, claimed that you could walk to the Arctic, literally, in them.

That's one of my students walking up a 2 degree ice slope in these brand new very expensive winter boots (laughter as they evidently are in trouble).

That's ridiculous.

One of the simulators we have is actual Winter.

We have a real ice floor and we mount it on something that can slope.

So you walk up and down on this ice floor, we control the temperature very precisely.

We gradually tip the room and you reach a point where your boot fails. We watched  one is failing at one degree. It failed at 2 degrees on melting ice. Very little.

We tried  another boot. We raise it a bit more. This one was failing at four degrees.

We launched a website last November and took a 100 of the winter boots that people could buy and rated them.

90 of them were useless.

To ten of them we gave one 'snowflake'. 

In two months we had 2.5 million hits on that website. I did 220 radio, tv and newspaper interviews in six weeks and we turned the footwear trade upside down.

All the boots we gave one snowflake to were sold out by Christmas.

[See the website for yourself by clicking]

This year all of the retailers are coming to us saying 'we must have our suppliers qualified by you before we stock this Winter'.

So now in one year we have changed the range of boots that people can buy.

This year when they go to stores they will see little labels on them qualified by us and we have already developed boots that will get three snowflakes easily.

I've got boots that we have developed that I can walk straight up and down on 23 degrees of wet ice, no problem. It's going to change the statistics quite dramatically.

Some of the boots are pretty crude technology. This is one of the successful boots and when you look at very closely it has got grit in it, bits of carbide. That helps adhesion but it doesn't do much for your floors, but it does stick.

This one is interesting..

If you take a close look it looks smooth and it feels smooth.

It's actually furry, it has got little fibres that stick to wet ice.

There's lots to talk about.

I'm going to talk to you about driving.

This is my big lab, downstairs, with various simulators in it.

You can pick them up, we have ten ton crane.

This is DriverLab, you can put it on top of a six degree motion base and then we can give it some interesting challenges.

We want people to be able to find out for themselves where they're safe to drive. Are you safe to drive in the dark? Should you be driving on a four lane highway in the rain at night?

Based on this we could have customised licences so that when you take your driving test you won't necessarily fail. You may be allowed to drive under certain restrictions. You'll also see for yourself, when you have the experience of a simulator, when you have an accident - quite safely - you'll see that you might not be safe to drive in certain conditions.

We do a lot of work on drugs and driving. We want to know what dose of painkiller is safe.

And now cannabis is being legalised in Canada. We are a bit concerned about that. 

Drowsy Drivers. How do we get so your car recognises that you are falling asleep and knows what to do? Should it wake you up, suddenly and you are startled? Should it warn you before you go to sleep? Should it warn you that you have two minutes to get off the road and then I turn your engine off? What should it do? Should it put all the flashers on and tell everyone at the side and the back that you are about to fall asleep? How should it keep you awake?

I am doing a study of 1000 truckers because I'm very concerned about sleep apnoea and driving. At least ten percent of you have sleep apnoea [Geoff looked at us very hard] - maybe a bit more actually (laughter).

If you have it you have somewhere around a two or three times higher chance of causing a fatal car crash.

The simulator is built around an Audi car. Everything works as normal.

Our simulator is the only one in the world to recreate realistic night driving with glaring headlights coming towards you.

A robotic part of the simulator gets in front of the image of the oncoming lights and shines bright LEDs into the eyes of the driver.

In our simulator, if it rains, water actually sprays on the windshield and the wipers must wipe it away.

It's a weirdly compelling effect

I come back to Ely at least three times a year.

This is my favourite view in the world.

Christmas is especially important and I never miss the Carol Service in Ely Cathedral.

Looking back from Platform 2 is poignant.

Michael Yeomans SG60 and Stuart Porter SG59 live, like me, 'on the other side of the Pond'.

Both have had very successful careers in the pharmaceutical industry.

They send their regards

My closing theme is a bit corny but nevertheless heartfelt.

This part of the 1965 School Photo shows me [2nd left in row behind staff] 'standing on the shoulders' of Edward Armitage and the masters I learned so much from.

Here you can see my friend Dannie Nicholas standing - almost - on the shoulders of Gordon Hemmings [between Mr Makin and Mr Bozeat and in front of Sammy Martin].

I still correct my students for their incorrect use of 'due to' and 'owing to'!

[Gordon taught us that “due to” means “caused by”; “owing to” means “because of”.]

Thank you Gordon.

I owe so much to Lionel Hart, including a spirit of adventure gained in Senior Scouts that has lived on throughout my life.

The applause given at the end of Geoff's talk showed how much we had appreciated it.
We are sure many have been telling their family and friends about it.

Geoff had earlier thanked what he called the glorious triumvirate of Chris Bent, John Dimmock and Frank Haslam
for their part in enabling the Annual Reunions to continue. At least Chris and John were spared a slide
at the end of the talk showing them wearing some kind of  silly hat (thanks a bunch, Geoff!) by way of thanks.

Dr. Geoff Fernie Appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada

Congratulations to Dr. Geoff Fernie (CM, BSc (Sussex), PhD (Strathclyde), FCAHS, PEng, CEng), who was recognized with the Order of Canada in late December 2017!

Created in 1967, the Order of Canada, one of our country’s highest civilian honours, recognizes outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation. Close to 7000 people from all sectors of society have been invested into the Order. Their contributions are varied, yet they have all enriched the lives of others and have taken to heart the motto of the Order: DESIDERANTES MELIOREM PATRIAM (“They desire a better country”). Appointments are made by the governor general on the recommendation of the Advisory Council for the Order of Canada.

Dr. Fernie was named an Officer of the Order for “his advancements in the field of rehabilitation engineering, notably in the development of therapies and products designed to assist individuals with limited mobility.”

With a cross appointment to the Rehabilitation Sciences Institute, Dr. Fernie develops technologies for two broad purposes: To prevent injury and disease; to help individuals and their family caregivers continue to live in their own homes as they age.

Dr. Fernie has maintained a focus on the reduction of falls through the development of innovative mobility products, non-slip winter footwear and improvements to accessibility and building codes. He has made significant advances in preventing hospital acquired infections by improving hand hygiene. His recent involvement in the development of a disposable instrument for home diagnosis of sleep apnea has the potential to significantly reduce the prevalence of cardiovascular complications resulting from untreated sleep apnea. Dr. Fernie has been responsible for many products that assist people's independence, including innovative wheelchairs and bathroom aids. Many of his inventions have reduced the physical burden of caring for people, including the prevention of back and shoulder injuries in professional nurses and family caregivers caused by lifting and moving people.

page created 29 Oct 17: updated 11 Mar 19: Please contact the editor if you can add to this page.

If you are interested in finding out more about the work being done at Toronto Rehab you may like to use the following links:

Geoff Fernie message page on the iDAPT website message-from-the-institute-director
Video of Geoff Fernie and colleagues talking about their work
Videos on YouTube about Toronto Rehab

2017  lunch photo report