Bill Schardt  

In September 1941 Wittgenstein had started to work as a porter at Guy's Hospital.  During his time there he met Basil Reeve, a young doctor with an interest in philosophy, who  was studying the effect of shock on air-raid casualties under Dr R T Grant.  Grant felt that the concept of "shock" should be abandoned because there was no general agreement as to which symptoms indicated that the patient was suffering from it.  Ray Monk, Wittgenstein's biographer, suggests that Wittgenstein was interested by this radical approach to the problem.

 

When the blitz ended there were fewer casualties to study and in November 1942 Grant and Reeve moved to the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle upon Tyne which treated numbers of road traffic and industrial casualties.  They offered Wittgenstein a position as a laboratory assistant at a wage of £4 per week.  He left Guy's on the 17th March 1943 and arrived in Newcastle on 29th April, having spent part of the intervening period with Rush Rees at Swansea.  He lodged at Mrs Moffat's house at 28 Brandling Park, West Jesmond (2), which is not far from the hospital.  Grant and Reeve also lived there, as did Grant's secretary, Miss Helen Andrews.  Wittgenstein did not fit into the household very well.  In the mornings, when everyone was rather subdued, he was excessively chatty, and in the evenings, when everyone else relaxed together, he became unsociable and preferred to eat in his bedroom rather than to join the others at dinner.  Most of his evenings were spent watching films.

 

There is a story that Wittgenstein had a blazing row with a bus conductor about a film, and afterwards said how much he enjoyed the discussion.  It was just like the arguments he used to have in Vienna!  I have not been able to find a source of this story in print.

 

When Mrs Moffat's health deteriorated they all had to find new lodgings (2), which was not easy for Wittgenstein as he looked rather scruffy.  He also spoke with a foreign accent, and claimed to be a professor!

 

His work included histology and physiological measurements, and he constructed an apparatus to study the relationship between breathing and pulse rates.  Drury (4), who visited him during this period, describes the device:  

 

"He took me to his room in the research department and showed me the apparatus which he himself had designed for his investigation.  Dr Grant had asked him to investigate the relationship between breathing (depth and rate) and pulse rate (volume and rate).  Wittgenstein had so arranged things that he could act as his own subject and obtain the necessary tracings on a revolving drum.  He had made several improvements in the original apparatus, so much so that Dr Grant had said he wished Wittgenstein had been a physiologist and not a philosopher."

 

Unfortunately, when Monk was researching for his book, no-one could remember exactly what this device was like.  It was perhaps typical of Wittgenstein to use himself as the subject (cf. the world is my world - the microcosm!).

It is not surprising that he proved to be useful as a laboratory worker.  He had showed an early interest in mechanical things and had constructed a sewing machine out of wood when aged ten.  His education had been technical and he had spent three years as an engineering research student in Manchester (from 1908), where he had studied the combustion of gases under high pressure, and had also developed an interest in aeronautics (notably in kites and propellers).

 

In the Philosophical Investigations, 270 contains the sentence "I discover that whenever I have a particular sensation a manometer shows that my blood-pressure rises".  This may be a reference to an actual experience that occurred while taking part in experiments at Newcastle.

 

Drury also describes a visit to Durham with Wittgenstein during this period.  As they walked by the river Drury described his shock he at seeing an obscene bas-relief of the god Horus.  Wittgenstein replied that not every religion has St Augustineís attitude to sex (4).

While in Newcastle, Wittgenstein did little or no philosophical work.  He had begun to doubt whether he was any longer capable of it, and he found laboratory work very demanding.  It was, however, during this period that he appeared unexpectedly at a philosophy lecture given by the young Dorothy Emmett at Newcastle.

 

She had been invited by Freda Herbert, a chemical pathologist, to give a paper to the philosophy group that met in her flat.  Dorothy Emmett stayed in the Grand Hotel (currently Bar Oz) in the Haymarket, and was enjoying the unusual wartime luxury of a bath with unlimited hot water, when the phone rang.  It was Freda Herbert asking if it was all right for a stranger to come to the meeting.  Dorothy Emmett felt that this was an unnecessary interruption to her bath and said so in no uncertain terms.  It was only when she arrived to give her paper that she was told that the stranger was Wittgenstein.  He had not yet arrived and she had hopes of getting through the paper before he appeared.  However, he walked in when she had scarcely begun.  She recognised him and was somewhat unnerved.  Somehow she managed to finish her talk, whereupon Wittgenstein said "Now lets do some philosophy", and proceeded to take over the meeting, completely ignoring the subject of her paper!

 

He was always a difficult man.  When Drury unwisely wrote expressing the hope that he would make lots of friends in Newcastle, Wittgenstein rather unkindly replied: "It is obvious to me that you are becoming thoughtless and stupid.  How could you imagine that I would ever have 'lots of friends'."  Grant sometimes arranged for his unit to take the day off to go walking together along Hadrian's wall, but Wittgenstein was never invited to join these excursions, as it was feared that he would talk shop.  He did, however, go walking with Grant and Reeve on other occasions.  Bywaters, who took over the unit from Grant (see below), found Wittgenstein reserved and uncommunicative, although a meticulous worker.

 

In January 1944 Grant and Reeve left Newcastle to study battlefield casualties in Italy.  It seems that Wittgenstein and Reeve did not part on very good terms.  Wittgenstein's last remark to his former friend was "You're not such a nice person as I first thought".  Dr E G Bywaters replaced Grant as head of the unit.  Grant encouraged Bywaters to retain Wittgenstein's services, but meanwhile he had received a letter from Cambridge (Monk thinks from Cambridge University Press rather than the long-suffering University) asking him to return and start work on a philosophical treatise.  Perhaps rather uncharacteristically he complied with this request and returned to Cambridge on 16th February 1944, less than a month after the departure of Grant and Reeve from Newcastle.  He had begun to miss philosophical work, and was feeling lonely.

 

The work of Grant's unit is described in "Medical Research Committee Reports 1939 - 1945":  Wittgenstein is not mentioned (5).

 

In Newcastle it is quite widely believed that Wittgenstein worked as a porter (as he did at Guy's), rather than as a laboratory assistant.  Indeed the late Brian Redhead (a well-known BBC broadcaster) claimed to have been wheeled into the operating theatre by him.  However the Radio 4 "Radio Lives" program about Redhead gave a number of instances of his inventing interesting incidents in his life, and it is likely that this was another of them.  There is no other evidence that Wittgenstein ever worked as a porter at the RVI.

 

On 25th November 1997 a plaque commemorating Wittgenstein's time in Newcastle was unveiled at the Royal Victoria Infirmary by Dr Mary Midgley.  It is situated in the oldest part of the building just inside the main entrance, and was donated by the philosophy students of the Department of Continuing Education of Newcastle University.  Photographs of consultants working in the hospital while Wittgenstein was there were placed on either side of the plaque, and by coincidence Freda Herbertís picture is among them.

 

Wittgenstein was a notoriously difficult man in his relationships with other people.  However, when Mary Midgley gave her speech before unveiling the plaque, she expressed the view that on the whole he got on rather better with friends and colleagues during his time in Newcastle than either before or after this period.

 

Sources:

1.  "Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius."  Ray Monk.

2.  "Myers' Literary Guide - The North East."  Alan Myers.

3.  "Wittgenstein -A Memoir."  Norman Malcolm.

4.  "Wittgenstein - Personal Recollections." ed. Rush Rees, chapter by M O'C Drury.

5.  Medical Research Committee Reports 1939-1945, pages 253-256.