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“He is like a fatherly friend to me”

“He is like a fatherly friend to me”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/Simone Golob

Coen Hemker inspired by Robert Gwyn Macfarlane

Biochemist and former rector Coen Hemker was a member of the ‘Gang of Seven’ that prepared for the arrival of the Maastricht Faculty of Medicine at the beginning of the nineteen-seventies. Hemker became a hotshot in the field of thrombosis. Who was his inspiration? A world-famous Scottish haematologist who could polish Japanese swords with infinite patience.

Coen Hemker (1934, Amsterdam) started his study of biochemistry with great reluctance. He actually wanted to become a paediatrician; he got on with children very well. Maybe because he had often looked after his four younger brothers at home. “My mother had heart problems and my father was more like a difficult older brother who was primarily interested in his hobbies. He actually did a PhD when he was seventy, I was his supervisor.  My youngest brother was fourteen years younger. That is also when my love of cooking started, I even wrote a cookery book.”

It was paediatrician Simon van Creveld, from Amsterdam, who advised him to first do a year of biochemistry. “It went well and at a certain moment my supervisor said: ‘If you stay for one more year, you could do a PhD.’ It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, also because I had tasted the adventure of doing research. I became addicted to it, was more and more curious about the results. You are in fact carrying on a discussion with the material, with nature.”

After a short-term job as a paediatrician in training (“not my cup of tea, a lot less exciting than research”), he applied for a position as researcher at the haemostasis and thrombosis department of the university hospital in Leiden. And was accepted. “I ended up in Oxford for training, in Robert Gwyn Macfarlane’s world-famous lab. There was a sign in his room that said: ‘Science is difficult but people are impossible.’”

That doesn’t sound like a great friend of human beings but he definitely was. “Macfarlane was very friendly, he could view the world and himself from a comfortable distance. He was like a fatherly friend to me. I once stayed at his farm, just outside London, for a couple of weeks. He had a huge collection of Japanese swords, which he polished with infinite patience.”

Macfarlane (1907-1987) had – simultaneously with an American – drawn up the basic theory of coagulation of the blood. “Simply put, the theory was that coagulation was the result of a series of successive factors, of enzymes that activated each other one after the other. But I had my doubts: I believed that the last enzyme in the series had ‘a helping hand’. The American would hear nothing of it, but Macfarlane was immediately prepared to look into my doubts. See, that is how science should be carried out. My doubts were verified and together we wrote an article for Nature. I was the primary author and he was the last. One of my brothers also had his name in it. He studied mathematics at the time and helped with the complicated calculations behind the enzyme kinetics.”

Why would a researcher through and through become a rector (in 1982)? “In an attempt to make research more accepted at the UM. It was practically labelled as an illegal activity here. Everyone was focussed on education. I firmly believed that Tans and Baeten (the then mayor, ed.) only realised during the first exploratory discussions, which I also attended, that a university also does research. Six months after my rectorship, the ministry called. If I would like to become President of the Executive Board at the UM. I declined. I was much too happy to be back in my lab.”

After his retirement, Macfarlane moved to the north of Scotland. Hemker and his family went to visit him. “Does it not rain here all the time, I asked him? He said: ‘Usually, the weather is good and if it is not good it is at least interesting.’ Great. Most things in life are like the weather in Scotland. That was also my motto when I was a rector. Usually matters at the UM went well, but if things went wrong, I thought it was fascinating.”

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