Reflections on a Quarter-Century of Conferences
A Supreme Court judge once said to me: ‘I think that travel is over-rated’.
The pronouncement of any Supreme Court judge should always be treated with respect, if not with deference.
But since he made that pronouncement in the foyer of a hotel in Greece, during one of these conferences, I thought at the time that it lacked credibility.
The first Greek-Australian International Legal and Medical Conference took place in Athens in 1988 in the auditorium of the Inter-Continental Hotel.
My lasting memory of the first session of that conference is that the hotel management, by what no doubt they thought was a courtesy, had placed an ashtray on each seat.
In 1988 it was more than mildly surprising that anybody would think that people would want to smoke in an enclosed auditorium. It was even more surprising that anyone would think, even back then, that an audience that consisted to a large extent of medical practitioners would want to smoke in an enclosed auditorium, or indeed would want to smoke at all.
In 2015, it is unthinkable that anyone would attempt to smoke, or be encouraged to smoke, in a public auditorium. Both the smoker and the occupier of the auditorium would be open to prosecution, if those things happened in Australia.
The change of attitude in Australia towards smoking in public is a cultural shift that has occurred during the quarter-century in which these conferences have taken place. Both the legal profession and the medical profession have been instrumental in bringing about that cultural shift.
The legal influence upon it probably began with a pioneering piece of Victorian legislation: the Tobacco Act of 1987. Dr Nigel Gray of the Anti-Cancer Council had laid the groundwork for it. The Act imposed some controls on the advertising of cigarettes and of other tobacco products. Other States built upon the Victorian model and introduced their own legislation.
At our conference in Crete in 2007 Professor Ian Frazer told us that smoking contributed to nearly 40% of avoidable cancer deaths in Australia.
By 2011 the Commonwealth Parliament had enacted the Tobacco Plain Packaging Act. In doing so it relied in part on the Commonwealth’s power to make laws with respect to external affairs: its obligations under a World Health Organisation convention. The legislation survived a full-scale High Court challenge that the tobacco industry launched.1
The medical profession has been a driving force behind this legislative innovation and reform, which has reflected the cultural shift in attitudes towards smoking. That cultural shift is a truly medico-legal achievement.
Thessaloniki, our present venue, was also the venue for the sixth conference, in 1997.
The committee had arranged for a post-conference tour to Turkey. There have been several pre- or post-conference tours to Turkey since, but 1997 was the first. At that time a visit to Turkey was a comparative novelty for most Australians. In the years since, Turkey has become very much part of the beaten track for Australian tourists. But it was not in 1997.
After the conference in Thessaloniki ended we travelled overland by bus to the Turkish border. Those of us who were on the tour will remember that it did not begin well. We were dropped at the border crossing. There we were supposed to transfer to another bus, our tour bus. But there was no other bus waiting, and no bus for some hours. I doubt that the organisers ever found out exactly what had happened: whether, as the Turkish tour operator apparently claimed, the bus had been sent mistakenly to another border crossing first, or whether, as I suspect was the case, we simply had been forgotten about. At all events, the bus finally arrived and took us to Istanbul.
A few days later we were to drive to a coastal town for an overnight stay. The drive seemed to take forever. At midnight the driver was still trying to find the hotel. He drove the bus down a narrow street, which turned out to be the wrong street. It dropped steeply down towards the sea. To our horror the driver started to reverse the bus up the narrow slope. By this time our party had dubbed it ‘the bus from hell’.
Despite these and other misadventures, the tour provided wonderful experiences for all of us who were part of it. For some, the great experience was Istanbul itself: the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace, and all the other features of the old city. For others, the great experience was the visit to Gallipoli, which has a special place in the Australian psyche. For others still, myself included, the great experience was the visit to the ruins of Troy.
The Trojan war and its aftermath were the subject of the two great Greek epic poems: the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer. The fall of Troy and its aftermath were the subject of the great Latin epic poem: the Aeneid of Virgil.
Although there is not much to see at Troy in the ruins themselves, for someone like me whose education included exposure to those three great epics, especially the Aeneid in some detail, it was thrilling to be able to stand on a high point amongst the ruins and look out across the Trojan plain in the direction of the island of Tenedos. To there the Greek fleet had withdrawn, to a harbour on the far side of the island, and had left behind outside the gates of Troy the wooden horse.
We all know the story, at least in outline. Once the Trojans took the horse inside the gates, then retired for the night, the Greek soldiers emerged from the horse and threw open the gates. The Greek forces, having by moonlight sailed back from Tenedos, entered the city. Troy fell and was destroyed.
This was the ruse devised by the master trickster, named Odysseus in Greek, Ulixes by the Romans, and – in a kind of compromise – Ulysses in English.
The story of the fall of Troy is not found in the two great Homeric epics. The action in the Iliad ends while the war is still in progress. In the Odyssey there are only two passing references to the fall and destruction of Troy, and only one to the incident of the Trojan horse.2
The detailed story of the fall of Troy is found in Virgil’s Aeneid. The poem’s hero is Aeneas, a prince of Troy, who escapes from the burning city and eventually reaches Italy, where his descendants became the Latin people and in future years are the founders of Rome. In Book 2 of the Aeneid, Aeneas is recounting to Dido, Queen of Carthage, how the fall of Troy came about. He tells how the Greeks had apparently given up the war and left the wooden horse behind. He says, ‘We thought they had sailed for Mycenae before the wind and had returned home’. He goes on to describe how the Trojans debated whether to take the horse inside the walls. This what happens next when Laocoon, a priest of Poseidon, enters the debate (I read from the Jackson Knight translation):3
But there, in front of all, came Laocoon, hastening furiously down from the citadel with a large company in attendance. While still far off, he cried: ‘O my unhappy friends, you must be mad indeed. Do you really believe that your enemies have sailed away? Do you think that a Greek could offer a gift without treachery in it? Do you know Ulysses no better than that? Either some of their men have been shut inside this timber-work and are now hiding in it, or the horse itself is a machine for overcoming our walls, perhaps to pry somehow into our homes or threaten Troy from its height; or it hides some other confusion for us. Trojans, never trust that horse, Whatever it proves to be, I still fear Greeks, even when they offer gifts.’
The Greeks have another trick up their sleeve. One of their number has been captured and poses as a deserter. He spins the yarn that the horse had been built as an offering to Athena so that the Greeks could secure their safe return home.
The clincher is that Laocoon is killed in a way that seems to show Poseidon’s disapproval of his warning to beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Two giant serpents swim across the Aegean from Tenedos. They strangle Laocoon and devour his two infant sons. The Trojans who urge the acceptance of the gift win the day. The horse is taken inside the walls: Troy’s fate is sealed. Troy is sacked and burned. But Aeneas escapes, and the legend of the founding of the Roman empire begins.
Like Thessaloniki, the island of Rhodes has been the venue for two of our conferences.
The mediaeval town of Rhodes reflects the second of the two great periods of Rhodian history, when the Knights Hospitaller of St John captured Rhodes in 1309, after the fall of Acre in the Holy Land which had been their stronghold. They ruled Rhodes for 200 years. There are many visible reminders of that period: the Hospital of the Knights; the Street of the Knights onto which faced the various lodges of knights of the order.
There was an earlier great period for Rhodes: the Hellenistic period that followed Alexander the Great’s conquests. At Rhodes itself the only visible reminder of that period is the harbour, the double harbour, that evokes the memory of the Colossus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The Colossus of Rhodes was a bronze statue of Helios, built to celebrate the town’s repulse of a siege.
We don’t know precisely where the Colossus stood. There is a legend that its legs straddled the entrance to the Mandraki, the smaller of the two harbours. One hopes that the legend is true, although it probably isn’t. Shakespeare drew upon the legend. In Julius Caesar, Cassius is trying to persuade Brutus that Caesar has become too great, and so should be brought low. He says:4
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at sometime were masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
The Colossus has gone, destroyed by an earthquake little more than half a century after it was built, and its wreckage looted and carried away.
Many outstanding presentations or addresses have been given at these conferences. I hope I will be forgiven if during this talk I mention only two.
During the second of the two conferences held at Rhodes, in 2003, Professor Don Metcalf gave a presentation entitled ‘Purity and the Pursuit of Excellence’. During his presentation he said something so striking and vivid that I could never forget it. He was talking about his experiences in his early years that led him to pursue a quest for excellence in medical research. One of those experiences, he said, was reading in his high school chemistry book that in every glass of water that we drink there is at least one molecule of the draught of hemlock that Socrates took. Like the legend of the standing place of the Colossus of Rhodes, one hopes that the bold statement about the molecule from the draught of hemlock is true. At least one can say that nobody can prove that it is not true.
Everyone who was at the conference at Corfu in 2001, the eighth conference, will surely remember the keynote legal address by Justice Michael Kirby: an hour-long tour de force, delivered without the aid of any notes. He told us that his luggage had gone missing en route and that his notes had been in the luggage.
Justice Kirby’s theme was the present and likely future impact of technological change on legal problems and legal ethics. He began by saying that the three major technological changes of the twentieth century were in the understanding of the atom and of nuclear physics, the advance of information technology, and the advances of biotechnology and the science of genomics: the use of computer programmes to read genetic information from DNA. He reminded us of the ground-breaking discovery of the structure of the DNA molecule – the double-helix structure. That discovery has led to the programme to map or sequence the entire human genome: all the genetic information that each person has.
Justice Kirby’s presentation prompted me to try to learn some more about molecular biology. Biotechnology and genomics have continued since 2001 to develop at an enormous rate, providing a window into the entire history of life on Earth.
Jewish people have a tradition that all people with the surname Cohen are descendants of Aaron the brother of Moses. It may be more than a story. I understand that half of the Jewish men named Cohen have a Y-chromosome – the indication of maleness – that can be traced back to one ancestor about 3000 years ago, when Moses and Aaron were supposed to have lived.5
The historian and biographer A N Wilson puts forward an interesting idea. It is that the discovery of the structure of DNA, and its place in the operation of the hereditary principle of molecular biology, is a confirmation of a hunch that the human race always had. He points out that, as well as the Old Testament, all of the great epic poetry, including the Iliad, contains lengthy recitations of the names of supposed ancestors of present day heroes. Those recitations of names recognise that the make-up of any present-day hero has origins in the make-up of those mythical ancestors.6
Wilson may be drawing a long bow here. But his idea is a way of showing how two features of our conferences – the cultural programme and the medico-scientific programme – can complement each other. It is attractive to think of the cultural strand of the Iliad and the medico-scientific strand of genomics being drawn together in that way.
The eleventh conference took place on Crete in 2007.
The committee had organised a pre-conference tour to Russia. I remember from the tour of Russia one of those striking and memorable sentences, like Don Metcalf’s sentence about the glass of water and the molecule from Socrates’ draught of hemlock.
Someone asked our guide in Moscow about the difference between her life in the Communist era and her life in the post-Communist era. The question was asked more courteously and subtly than the way I have just expressed it. Her answer was: ‘Things are better now. But we lived better then’.
What I took that answer to mean was this. In the post-Communist era there has been greater freedom to express oneself in public, to practise openly one’s religion, to carry on a business and to travel both within Russia itself and to other countries. During the Communist era, those things were difficult, if not impossible. In that sense, things are better now. On the other hand, there is no longer the security of employment, the guaranteed provision of housing and utilities, the stable currency and the general social safety net that the command economy of the Communist era provided, however artificially. In that sense, people lived better then. If I have interpreted her answer correctly, much meaning was packed into one memorable sentence.
Since those words were spoken in 2007, Russia seems to have headed further and further back into authoritarian rule, and I wonder whether that lady would still say ‘Things are better now’. I suspect that, on balance, she would.
The quarter-century of conferences is drawing to a close. What have we gained from them?
First, and most obviously, they have given us an exposure to Greece. I do not mean just the Greek cities and Greek islands which have hosted the conferences, glorious though some of those venues are. I mean also the history and culture of ancient Greece that the cultural programmes of our conferences have emphasised: the history and culture which underlies the way in which today we organise our society politically, the way in which we judge greatness in art, and the way we think.
Secondly, there has been the coming together of the medical and legal professions and the exchange of ideas between them, each seeking to understand the other better and to learn from the other. I have given a personal example: the incentive to learn something about molecular biology and genomics. Each of us may be able to provide our own example.
Finally, there has been the opportunity to join the pre-conference and post-conference tours, arranged with such professionalism that we can travel with an ease and convenience that many of us would not be able to organise ourselves.
These are what we have gained from our conferences. The gains have been immense.
Ladies and gentlemen, that Supreme Court judge has been proved wrong. We know that travel is not over-rated.
1 JT International SA v The Commonwealth of Australia (2012-13) 250 CLR 1.
2 In Book 4, Menelaus tells Helen, in the presence of Ulysses, how Ulysses kept the troops quiet until the time came to move. In Book 9, Ulysses visits the underworld, encounters the ghost of Achilles, and tells him of his son’s bravery during the closing stages of the war.
3 Virgil, The Aeneid, translated by W F Jackson Knight (Penguin Classics, 1956), p 52.
4 Act 1, Scene 2, lines 134-140.
5 Lee M Silver, The Science of Self (The Great Courses, 2009), p 179 and p 275.
6 A N Wilson, After the Victorians (Hutchinson, 2005), p 517.