CollectionGB 0231 University of Aberdeen, Special Collections
Ref NoMS 3620/1/179
TitleInterview with Alexander Adam (1920-2009), (M.B. Ch.B. 1942)
Date23 March 2004
Extent1 audio cassette and 1 file
Administrative HistoryAlexander Adam was a University of Aberdeen student, and is Honorary Librarian of Aberdeen MedChi Society. He has spent the past 20 years, since his retirement, gathering items connected to the history of this society.
DescriptionThis is an interview with Mr. Alexander Adam recorded on the 23 March 2004 and the interviewer is Jennifer Carter.

JC Well very nice of you, Mr. Adam, to be so patient while I got all the bits and pieces together to talk to you. Could I ask you perhaps as a starter why you wanted to be a medic in the first place?

AA Well as I said earlier I was one of seven children and it was made very clear to me as a young boy that there was no future for me in the family farm and that I should, was going to be educated and I think that my father wanted me to be a minister. He was an elder of the United Free Kirk but that didn't appeal to me at all and in fact I would have been a very poor minister I know, I haven't got the personality to be a minister, but I went to Sunday School of course and sometimes I went to church four times on a Sunday.

JC It was a busy religious day, yes.

AA We had Sunday School examinations and we got prizes and the prizes we got were "Livingstone", "MacKay of the Uganda", books like that.

JC Books on famous missionaries.

AA Famous missionaries. Mary Slessor of Calibar and so on and it happened that there was an old lady who lived nearby, an old wifie would be more accurate, and every day as I went to school, primary school, I took for her a little can of milk and she introduced me to her nephew, whose name was Davidson and he was a doctor in the Colonial Medical Service in those days, quite a well known doctor in fact, with a distinguished career. I didn't know that until later. And it occurred to me that that was something I could do, so that is why I took up medicine.

JC At quite a young age, it was the influence of a neighbour in fact. Interesting.

AA And the church.

JC And the church. What happened to the rest of your siblings? You said there were seven of you. Could your parents afford to educate the lot of you?

AA No. The war spoiled what would have been the natural process of the farm. I had three sisters who were the first three in the family. Then there was the oldest boy and I was next and then there were two more boys. The eldest girl became a nurse, the second girl became a teacher, she is still alive, she could give you some memories. Oh I don't think she would want to, she is 92. The third sister in the custom of the time was destined to be, to look after the parents and the farm, be sort of help on the farm, you see. The women on a farm in those days had a lot of work to do apart from just housework. So that was the three girls. The oldest boy was to be the next farmer and I was to go..

JC And make your living somewhere else.

AA Yes, and that was the way it was anyway. So the war came, now of course everybody who was young and fit was in the Territorial Army, so my oldest brother was called up in March 1939 and so was my youngest sister because she was also in the Territorial Army. So that left the farm bereft.

JC Indeed!

AA My father by then was old and not very well. He was an older man when he married but my younger brother, two years younger than me, he would have been seventeen when the war started, he had to take on the farm and my poor mother had to do all the work on her own, helped by an impecunious student, myself, when the holidays came.

JC That was a burden, wasn't it?

AA Yes, but that's the way it was.

JC But you in fact were too far advanced in your student career to be able to carry on the work.

AA I was .. we were reserved you see. [i.e. not liable for military service]

JC Did that mean that you did a shorter medical course or what?

AA No we did the full medical course, but we did extra terms, so we graduated in 5 instead of 6 years. So I turned up in University in 1937.

JC Having been schooled locally at Aberchirder you say.

AA Well the local country school, first primary school, then three years at Aberchirder and then two years at Banff.

JC And was Banff in those days a fairly academic school?

AA Banff was a very good school from the point of view of education, but, what shall I say … the teachers were pretty brutal, to put it bluntly! There was one Classics teacher was a sadist in fact, he used to thrash people unnecessarily for no good reason! Nobody ever complained of course in those days.

JC Of course not, you just accepted it as your lot! Did you get adequate science teaching at school?

AA We got good science teaching at Banff, yes.

JC To prepare you for the medical course.

AA We had a very good science teacher. We had a good language teacher. We had a very good maths teacher. One of the boys from the class after me was the first Bursar, Wilkie, he became Professor of German here.

JC Oh!

AA Did you know him? John Wilkie.

JC John Wilkie, of course. He is dead now, but I did know of him.

AA Yes he is dead now, that's right, but he was the year after me at school.

JC At Banff, yes. Interesting. So you yourself, did you sit the Bursary Comp. or not?

AA Yes I did, but I didn't get a bursary. There weren't many medical bursaries. Only two or three I think , I couldn't tell you how many.

JC No. And you had had a fairly sort of interrupted schooling, with three schools.

AA Well I was competing, yes. And I was competing against people who had done an extra year.

JC So how did you manage financially as a student?

AA Well as I say, I was very hard-up. Not that my parents … my parents trusted me totally, which meant of course that I had to be perhaps more parsimonious than I might have been if I had some other way of being funded. But I felt that I had to spend as little as possible.

JC I understand, yes.

AS That's what I did. But I wasn't deprived I wouldn't say, except that I felt that I couldn't buy, for instance, I couldn't buy equipment to play football, perhaps, and things like that. But I did box for the University, which cost nothing! I lived in digs in Rosemount Place, 22 shillings a week to begin with, raised later to 25 shillings. Very expensive!

JC Always in same digs all your student years?

AA No. But it was a tenement of course, shared toilet on the stair, no bathroom, no heating. I sat in my room and everything I could wear, when I was reading at night in the winter-time. And I went down to the gym and showered at the gym, every now and then.

JC And the landlady fed you?

AA Oh very well! She was the old fashioned landlady. Full board you see. I didn't buy lunch. I came home for my lunch. That was included in the 22 shillings. She was a substitute mother, she wouldn't let us misbehave. My friends we weren't allowed … I remember we came home three or four of us one night and we played cards until early in the morning and next morning I got such a telling off from my landlady and this was to never, ever to happen again, because we had sat up. We hadn't misbehaved in any way, but we had sat up late, and it was made perfectly clear that this was not acceptable!

JC So you were a household of students, about four of you?

AA No! just the one. I was alone.

JC You were alone?

AA Well you couldn't .. there are only two bedrooms in a tenement flat. There was her bedroom and there was my bedroom, which was a small bedroom and that was it.

JC Were there other students in the same tenement? Was it a very studenty area?

AA Yes, but there was no more students in that tenement. I was the only one.

JC How did you come upon those digs? Was it a connection or just chance?

AA Well I came originally to my sister's digs, when she had been a nurse, and the landlady became ill and she passed me onto this one.

JC It is amazing to think of the number of women who made a living out of land-ladying at such low rates of reward.

AA Well she must have managed. I don't know how she managed. I didn't think, you know, in youth, you don't think about these things.

JC Of course not.

AA And it was very common.

JC Did you stay there at the weekend or did you go home to the farm?

AA No, no, I didn't go home. I couldn't afford to go home. No, no I didn't go home at the weekends, that was an extra 5 shillings. I couldn't do that every weekend. And anyway we had classes on Saturdays!

JC But when you went home for the vacation you travelled by bus or train?

AA By bus.

JC Bus all the way?

AA Yes.

JC Interesting. When you began as a student, I think you said that was 1937, so how conscious of the impending war were you then?

AA Not at all. I wasn't. I was ignorant. I should have been conscious. We all, my pals and I all joined the OTC and we had great fun in the OTC, that was a great thing you see, and you actually got a few shillings, now and then if you went on camp, which we had to do and so on. So that was a great thing and the uniform of course was all provided and we sat the certificate exams. First the E certificate, which we all passed, it was very simple. Then in our second year, 1938-39, we sat the B certificate and we had a sergeant instructor and he says "boys, you don't need to anything about this, you just bring your books in with you and just look up the answer. Copy the answers and it will be okay" So we all turned up at Mitchell Hall standing on the steps with our books to be met by a white-faced sergeant instructor saying "Hide your books, Hide your books, the War Office have sent representatives here!" The war was coming you see. So we all trooped in without our books and out of about 60 or 70 candidates, 60 maybe, 50 maybe, I don't know how many, 1 passed!

JC Oh dear. Was that you?

AA No!

JC So you weren't drummed out were you?

AA No, no. That was Stalker, Professor Stalker was the solitary pass and he done all this at school, at Morrison's Academy, I think it was.

JC He had been in the Officer's Training Corps or whatever it was called.

AA So there we are that was the only exam I ever failed.

JC And I bet you minded, did you?

AA Well I suppose I did. I can't recall. Everybody was in the same boat. Some of the teaching in those early days was quite appalling. Our professor of Zoology, was Professor Hogben, a great figure, I am sure that you must have heard of Hogben, Mathematics for the "millions", "Science for the Citizen". He was eccentric to say the least. I don't think we poor students understood what he was talking about. I certainly didn't. I managed to pass the Zoology exam. About 65% of the class I think failed, the first time. There was a re-sit of course

JC Those were the days of course weren't they, when people could re-sit many times? There was almost a tradition of medics re-sitting…

AA Oh, the chronic student. I can tell you a story about a chronic student!

JC Who was that?

AA His name was.. I can't remember what his name was. In my final year there was a chronic student. He was in his forties. To me he looked an old man and I remember being in a clinic with this gnarled old man and he was asked to examine a patient and he took a stethoscope out of his pocket and the rubber was all perished and it stayed coiled up as it was so old! However he straightened it out and he applied it to the patient's chest and to me it seemed he reported everything as exactly it should be and I thought why on earth has this poor man never graduated? However his teachers must have known something that I didn't, because when I came back from the war I was staying in my old digs in Rosemount Place for a day or two, visiting friends, and I was sitting looking out of the window and this man walked down the street, and every now and then he bent down and picked something up. I said to my landlady "That's so and so, he was a student with me, what is he doing?" "Oh " she said "He lives in Thomson Street. He has a house there and that house is crammed full of cigarette ends. Every cupboard and drawer is stuffed with cigarette ends." So obviously he must have had some strange mental disorder and that is why he hadn't graduated.

JC Isn't that extraordinary. Among your friends you referred to, were they mostly medics or did you find ..?

AA Medics mostly. Not entirely, but mostly.

JC In spite of the Territorial connection and the boxing, you didn't mingle much?

AA I mingled with the .. the boxing was different. The boxing actually.. most of the boxers who weren't medics were cadets. Now what kind of cadets were they? They were at the university ..

JC Air Cadets perhaps? Did they not teach people a radar course or an Air force course or something?

AA Some scientific thing they were taught, but I don't know. They were keen on boxing and the medical boxers, I can't remember if there were one or two Arts boxers too, yes.

JC But I imagine from what you have told me about your limited means that your social life was fairly restricted.

AA Very much so, I didn't have girlfriends for instance!

JC You didn't go to the Union hops?

AA I did, not much though. I wasn't a great success at the hops. I didn't have money. Without money you can't lead a comfortable social life. As I say my poverty was self inflicted to a certain extent.

JC Sure, but never the less it was real. Among the medical students, what was the proportion of woman students in those days? Were there about a third?

AA Yes, about a third.

JC Something of that order. And did you find that by then, the 1930s, 1940s that they were treated by with complete equality? Or was medicine still a bit old fashioned about this?

AA Och, no. They were totally equal. Well it seemed to me anyway.

JC It wasn't an issue?

AA I wouldn't have thought so. Not at all.

JC Very difficult to date that?

AA There was one thing that looking back on I find interesting, I don't know whether you will or not, but when we turned up in 1937 as medical students we addressed each other as Mr. this and Mr. that! We didn't address ourselves by our first names even. That didn't last very long. I can't tell you how long it lasted, but I remember clearly that we used to say "Mr. so and so ". Things have changed drastically since.

JC Yes, yes, and you didn't of course have the kind of intermediate stage of using men's surnames without the "Mr". You didn't do that?

AA No we didn't.

JC You didn't talk about Smith and Jones, no. What about women, were they Miss so and so?

AA Well I can't remember honestly, I can't remember. I suppose they must have been.

JC And among the other people in the medical who taught you, you mentioned Hogben as being not the easiest of or the most useful of teachers, are there other individuals who stand out?

AA Well of course they all stand out. Dr. Strathdee who taught us chemistry, he was a great character and a wonderful teacher. The amount of chemistry he could teach in a three hour session was quite astonishing and he was a great university man, as I am sure you know.

JC And a great link with the army as well, because the Aberdeen OTC Building is named after him.

AA Yes, that's right and he was also a great Gordonian of course you see, so he was quite a figure.

JC A local man, yes.

AA That's right. Harry Griffiths was Physics teacher and he was just alright, he was a good teacher, nothing outstanding, neither one or another, he was a good teacher, but wasn't a great character like some of them.

JC Who were you heroes among the medics? You know people who you know, you thought "Oh I would love to be as good as x".

AA I don't think I really had any heroes. Who were the outstanding people ? No I can't think of anybody. No not really.

JC Another point which was raised by another of our interviewees and was then new to me and I wonder if you felt this as well. It was someone who came from a similar country background to your own and who said that when he began at university the great divide among students was between the town boys and the country boys.

AA The great divide was between Grammar and Gordons and the others. Grammar and Gordons was the inner circle.

JC So it wasn't town versus country. It was Grammar and Gordon versus everybody else.

AA Well, that what it seemed to me anyway.

JC They all had their ready made friendships.

AA That is right.

JC And it felt like outsiders?

AA Well we were to an extent, but with ability and with people who were socially skilled that didn't matter. For instance, one of my year was John MacDonald from Elgin, his father was a doctor in Elgin. Now John McDonald was a big figure in the athletics clubs and Students Union and SRC and that sort of thing and he was from Elgin but he was socially skilled. Now I came out of an Aberdeenshire midden, I was socially inept.

JC Yes, so it was much harder for you.

AA I am not just saying I was inept, but there were others, you know.

JC Yes, so it was harder for them to integrate. How long did it take? A couple of years, by the time you were second or third students you felt equal to everyone else?

AA Oh I don't know, I couldn't put a time on it at all. It didn't bother me, I just accepted that this was the way. I just accepted things. I am sure others were exactly the same. Didn't feel left out by Gordon Grammar axis particularly, that was just the way it was.

JC What about the geography of your student life. Classes were then at Marischal, presumably, were they?

AA We went to King's for Botany and I think that was at 8 o'clock in the morning! And then the rest was at Marischal until we went up to Foresterhill of course in the clinical years.

JC And it would have been Foresterhill which opened in 1939 was it?

AA 1936. The Medical School opened in 1939.

JC But the wards were where you were working. How soon did you have patient contact as a young medic?

AA I think it was the third year. So that was 1939 The medical School was opened by the time we went up there. I belonged to the year that was the first to live in the residency. The very first residency of mixed students, I understand!

JC Absolutely so : Ian Olsen maintains.

AA And the last year of my studentship, it was meant to be the residence for people doing midwifery, students doing midwifery, but for the first year it took in students for the whole year, so I lived in the residence for a year, along with my pals and myself decided it would be a good thing and it was a good thing. There were students of all years, fourth and fifth and third year students were all there for this year and that was a great year because we had company we could discuss our work with each other, we could play bridge, we could do all sorts of things. That was an absolutely wonderful year.

JC You were right on site as well.

AA Right on site as well. If anything was happening you could pop up to see what was going on.

JC So King's which you mentioned that you went to in first year for classes really figure very little in your life as a student?

AA We went there for the OTC too.

JC Where was that held then?

AA Oh. I can't remember, we were shooting and putting Bren-guns together and all sorts of things. The OTC became the STC when the war came on and it was compulsory then. We did fire-watching, we were in the Home Guard. I used to Guard at the station at night. We were what was called the "de-contamination squad, we were taught how to deal with gas attacks, Mustard gas and some other forms of inhalation gasses as well. And I was in the Home Guard at home as well, when I was at home on holidays. I was in the Home Guard at home! Called out when the invasion scare in September 1939, we were all called out in the middle of the night. I was given a gun, a rifle, and with my young brother, and five rounds of ammunition, I was sent to guard a cross-roads for the night. My young brother was the runner to report if there was anything came and I was to guard the cross-roads, as I said I was given a rifle with five rounds of ammunition and I was told under no circumstances was I to load the rifle! No circumstances what so ever!

JC So if you saw a German parachutist land …

AA If I saw a German parachutist my brother was to run and report, but I was not to load my rifle! The only person I saw on the whole night was cyclist in the early morning going off to work.

JC Well it certainly made for an unusual student life! Was it in, I suppose in those days as youngsters, you took it all pretty lightly, I mean the war didn't depress you in any way?

AA Medical students were all ..

JC Always having a joke?

AA Always fun loving.

JC And did you have any political sense about what it was all about?

AA Yes, very much.

JC By the time the war broke out you were sort of aware of what it was all about?

AA Oh yes we were all aware, yes.

JC Good, well let's pause at that point as we are nearly at the end of the first side of the tape and then we can decide what to continue with …

Side two of tape

JC This is side two of the tape and we are just about to go into a story about medical students' behaviour! Do go ahead.

AA In 1951 the students returning from the final dinner in a state of intoxication went up to the Infirmary and in those days where the helicopter pad is now, there was a field, in which there was an old retired horse. Now the medical students didn't like the night sister because she interfered with their activities at night in the wards, when they were going round the wards.

JC Chatting up nurses!

AA Chatting up nurses, exactly, so they knew that this sister, when she did her rounds at night, she came to the special block and she went up the stairs to each ward until she came to the top and the she would take lift down. So they took this horse into the basement of the infirmary to put it in the lift so that when the sister pressed the button to take lift down she would be met by a horse on the top storey!

JC Poor animal, it must have been terrified!

AA Fortunately, I think very fortunately, the horse refused to go in the lift, the unsteady feel obviously, so they, not knowing what to do with the animal, they took it over to the medical school and the medical school was opened at night, I don't know, in those days there was no problem with security and they took the horse into the medical school along the corridor and tied it up at the end of a corridor. In the gloaming of the morning, Mrs. Twyvie, was washing the corridor on her hands and knees, moving backwards as she did so, and suddenly above her a horse neighed, and she swung round and looked up and there was a horse leg there, and there and there, and she twisted her back, so she was taken to hospital with her twisted back and Mrs. Twyvie attended my clinic, until I retired in 1983, with backache!

JC Poor lady! So it really was a serious ….

AA So that is a true story!

JC Dreadful! And what became of the horse? Or doesn't history report?

AA The horse must have been returned to the field.

JC Somebody rescued it and put it back in its field. Are there any other student or other things to do with your life as a clinician that you would like to record?

AA I can't think. I could tell you about the MedChi by all means?

JC Yes do, because no one has talked to us about that.

AA Well the MedChi was established in 1789, by students, who were dissatisfied with teaching at that time, it was very poor.

JC Led by McGrigor.

AA McGrigor and his friend Dr. Robertson, he wasn't a doctor then, he was a student. And it was not very long after 1811 it was taken over by graduates and became a graduate society. With the students very much second rate, and they died out in 1864, the same year that the University Medical Society for students was first instituted. It became the body that ran medicine in Aberdeen for one hundred years!

JC In an informal sense you mean, that everybody important belonged.

AA Everybody belonged to it. Everything was decided at the MedChi. Everybody and everybody who was of any significance was a member. General practitioners as well as hospital staff.

JC So it must have been a very large body by the later part of your career say?

AA Oh well there is over 500 now you see. Five hundred members now and it has remained a very influential body, in my early days, in the 1950s it was a still a very influential and all the main figures were members then.

JC Really. And when you say things were decided, do you mean policy was decided.

AA Well the most famous occasion which is often cited was the institution of the Foresterhill complex, which was first presented in 1920 to MedChi by Matthew Hay, that is the most famous incident in its history. It was presented to the MedChi and then a body of them got together and went to the Town House and there they met who is the Council and members of the University and so the whole thing took off. It came from the MedChi, just as the Medical School came through the MedChi. The Medical School you see, as I said students didn't get teaching, so they started to teach themselves and in 1811 when the graduates took it on, and the students still petitioned their elders to get teaching and they even suggested that they should institute an extra-mural Medical school. This evidently caused concern, because, that evidently made them start giving lectures at Marischal and very gradually over the 1820s and onwards the Medical School became established at Marischal.

JC And subsequently at King's as well?

AA There was one at King's as well. There always was a professor at both, but they didn't teach you see. So the Medical School grew out of the MedChi.

JC In more recent times, say from the 1960s say, what has been the role of MedChi ?

AA Well it has been much diminished of course because, because it became diminished early on in the 1858, the Medical Act was passed, the GMC was established. Well what the GMC did was done by the MedChi. They organised the profession in this area, locally.

JC They were the kind of professional, validating and disciplinary body as it were?

AA Well, they set fees and that sort of things. They had their meetings, it is all in the minutes, and then they had a library, which became by the end of the 1900s, their library was one of the great collections of Medical literature in the country, perhaps the world even! But then its use declined because it was overtaken by the University Library and this great collection of material to my great sorrow was sold at Sotheby's in 1967!

JC Goodness, I didn't know that!

AA This huge collection of the most valuable medical literature.

JC So whose decision was that?

AA That was the decision of the MedChi. No body was looking at the library in those days. There was no interest in history in those days!

JC That's terrible!

AA Thing's have changed tremendously, but they kept some local stuff so we have a very interesting collection of manuscript books and old text books which the students from 1789 onwards used. We have got manuscript text books going back to 1776. With people like Cullen who was the great physician of his day, the leading physician in the world of his day, there is quite a collection of the material now. I have spent the last 20 years collecting material about Aberdeen's medical history which is quite, I can't think of the word …

JC Well rich, might be one.

AA Well rich is not the one I am thinking about but it is dreadfully underestimated because if you are not Edinburgh or London, and a lesser extent Glasgow, you don't matter and there is much that Aberdeen medical school has contributed which is not recognised and I could give you many, many examples.

JC Interesting! Thinking back …

AA Well you see in those days, right up until I suppose 1900, the high-flyers of the medical profession in Aberdeen didn't look to Edinburgh or London, they went to the Continent and on the Continent was where all the great scientific advances were being made by people like Pasteur and Virchow and any number of them you could name, Koch and so on. That is where they went for their education.

JC That is interesting as it is reviving a much, much older tradition, you know, sort of early 17th Century, close relations with Aberdeen and Europe.

AA Well I don't know, I don't think it ever stopped, because people went to Leiden you see in the 1730s, 40s, then they went to Vienna and this went right on up towards the 1900 and all the great names of the late-19th Century, names like Ogston, McWilliam, Matthew Hay.

JC They all had the continental experience.

AA They had all been, they had actually been educated on the continent as students and later, and it is my belief, and I don't think that I am prejudiced, that by 1900 Aberdeen Medical School was easily the best in the country.

JC That was the conclusion also of Carol Pennington's book about the Medical School, that you know, by the end of the 19th Century the Aberdeen School was ahead of anybody else.

AA Well it was and there was a gentleman called Sir Hendry Gray, who was a surgeon who went to London and sat his Fellowship of the Royal College there on three occasions and failed on three occasions and on his last occasion he said that he wouldn't come back because they were 30 years behind the times! And that was true.

JC That was true, yes. But thinking of more recent times, I mean, for example when you began your work as a clinician in Aberdeen, it would have been the natural thing to join the MedChi, still then?

AA Yes, it was and I had those meetings and the GPs would come to the meetings and it was a great place of contact between hospital staff and general practitioners, which doesn't exist anymore.

JC And probably didn't exist ….

AA But MedChi still has everybody, probably didn't exist sorry …

JC That sort of contact between hospital and GP's probably didn't exist in many centres. That sort of close contact.

AA Well there was a lot of societies like the MedChi throughout the country, yes. A lot of such societies. There is one in Edinburgh you see. There is one in Glasgow and all over the country. The MedChi was one of the early ones, but Edinburgh was earlier still.

JC So you have devoted your retirement, since you retired from your professional life, to looking after the affairs of the MedChi. Are you the Honorary Librarian, or something?

AA Yes. Well what I have done is just collected material about Aberdeen's medical history and collected bits and pieces for a museum, which people have given to me. Aberdeen Medical Centre is the only major medical centre, university centre, that doesn't have a medical museum. Which is a disgrace.

JC It is.

AA Dundee, which is a very young medical school, has a very good museum, which is on the web.

JC So does MedChi get any direct support from the University in your efforts?

AA No, none at all! All we get now is hindrance from the University!

JC Like what sort of thing?

AA Oh I couldn't say! They keep charging us extra for our electricity and we even got a bill for gas, when we don't have any gas! You see they calculated the area of our hall and they sent us a bill for gas based on the area of the hall. But we don't have any gas!

JC The fact that there was no gas pipe?

AA It didn't make any difference!

JC Well, that has been extremely interesting. Is there anything else that you would like to put on the record while we are talking.

AA Well I don't know what else you would like to know. I could talk for ever about my life you see. I don't like doing it mind you!

JC Well it has been very generous and good of you to do it. Thank you very much indeed.

End of recording.
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