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On science, engineering and the virtue of creating things with your own hands

Alumnus, Professor Carmel Pule, shares part of his fascinating life story, from wartime engineering and surgical equipment to the University of Malta.

“These are times when I am looking back and reflecting on my own life, weighing it all up and considering what influenced me. I lived through World War 2 in Malta, where I remember staying in shelters for long times to try and remain alive. I was influenced by the British Military in Malta and it was so obvious I would join as an engineering apprentice at the local Royal Navy dockyard, and at 16 years old I was transferred to Chatham dockyard in Kent.

“There I worked on naval ships, British S-class submarines, radar, sonar, armaments and analogue computers for homing torpedoes. I was so proud and happy to work on such wonderful engineering complexities, but looking back it makes me feel that I was as gullible as the youths in Germany listening to Adolf Hitler!

“It was with this guilt that I decided to leave Chatham in 1960 and attend Durham and then Newcastle University, where I met some very interesting people. Some of them had done similar work on armaments and gun controls, and we had long discussions about using electronics to make life better for blind and deaf people, and creating modern hospital equipment.

“I have good memories of roaming around Newcastle and Whitley Bay, all the way up to the Cheviot Hills and Pitlochry with my little 30cc motorcycle. These memories are good ones even though I’m closed in at home in the present, and I fondly remember the ‘Swans Taking Flight’ statue at the Civic Centre, which I considered to represent the flight of my life – struggling to and finally becoming airborne.

“On returning to Malta in 1970, a surgeon approached me to help him and the local hospital with developing surgical equipment. I did just that for the next 30 years, working in secret at my home where I designed and developed equipment such as retractors for heart operations and other surgical procedures, including making ventilators – the first one I designed was actually used on my own father! I repaired thousands of units, including Barron ligators, biopsy samplers of miniature size, endoscopes and what looked like a crown for use in brain operations.

“I was the first person in Malta to start courses as a Teacher of Technology, as during my 80+ years on this earth the world I knew in which everyone made and produced items themselves has begun to dwindle away. My parents’ home was full of the things that four brothers and sisters made with fretwork and other crafts. I used to help my uncle build traditional boats, and I wrote a book in my mother’s languages in respect for my predecessors who were all skilled people. My mother made so many items of lace, knitting, crochet, dressmaking – she was a wonderful, elegant woman, and learned so much of that on her own as she lost her own mother when she was six years old. In some ways, a good teacher is less important than an eagerness to learn.

“Now at over 80 years old, I still give some lectures, with new digital technology allowing me to share my work experience with students in their own homes. I teach Knowledge Transfer Systems for engineers to help my daughter Dr. Sarah Pule, who is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Education, Design and Technology. Although I have finished my main teaching programme, my students still like to keep in touch, and my 70 years’ industry experience is still often called upon. The President of Malta awarded me with a national decoration (the Medalja Ghal Qadi tar-Repubblika), and I am very fortunate to have lived a fulfilling family life rather than only focusing on my career.

“Recently, my wife and I have been looking around for things to do and make. I looked all over my workshop and found all the things I accumulated back I when was repairing surgical equipment. So I decided to build the simplest kind of ventilator, which could be used in an emergency, since our home is about 15 miles away from the local hospital. When my grandson comes home on occasion, we sometimes use the high-pressure side as an airgun to shoot paper pellets, he loves it.

“COVID-19 has set me thinking what a fool I was working on what was essentially ‘prosthesis for military personnel’, which meant planes for pilots born without wings, rather than real prosthesis for children born without legs or arms. While I’ve been working on my projects, my wife has been making visors and masks to help people deal with COVID-19. I hope that after the pandemic people will consider giving greater support to scientists and engineers to other great things, such as helping people like Maya Al Meri to achieve better mobility.”

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Swans Taking Flight (photo by Graham Robson)

published on: 1 June 2020