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Page last updated at 11:48 GMT, Tuesday, 27 January 2009

'Dear Blue Peter... I can save lives'

Anthony's letter to Blue Peter, 1973
Words of a future genius?

By Paula Dear
BBC News

At the age of nine few children know what they will go on to do with their lives. But for a scientist involved in one of the most revolutionary medical operations of recent times, his destiny appears to have been spelled out in a letter written 35 years ago, to a BBC children's programme.

It had been a heck of a year for Professor Anthony Hollander. In 2008, after 20 years of research into helping arthritis sufferers he unexpectedly found himself being asked to urgently adapt his skills to help save the life of a woman in Spain.

The groundbreaking treatment, by a team of scientists and surgeons, gave the woman a new windpipe using her own stem cells. He had helped save a dying woman and the successful operation made headlines around the world. It was, by any measure, a career high.

Anthony Hollander, man and boy
Boy to man: Prof Hollander says his child-like enthusiasm remains

After it was all over Mr Hollander got to thinking, and suddenly made a connection. In 1973, a nine-year-old Anthony Hollander had written to Blue Peter to tell them he had a "strange" belief that he knew how to "make people or animals alive".

The letter, which by his own admission today was "eccentric", went on to ask the programme to help him acquire the necessary materials to carry out these life-saving tasks.

The shopping list included a "model of a heart split in half" and "tools for cutting people open".

Thousands of children wrote to the programme every week, but each one received a personal letter back, and Anthony was no exception.

The response from then editor, Biddy Baxter, was "fundamental" to his future, he now believes. She encouraged him to seek information for his idea from the family doctor.

It was not so much the advice itself that left an impression on the boy. It was that whisper of encouragement that he gleaned from having received a reply at all, and that the letter did not dismiss his idea.

Book choice

"If her letter had shown any hint of ridicule or disbelief I might perhaps never have trained to become a medical scientist or been driven to achieve the impossible dream, and really make a difference to a human being's life," he says.

Biddy Baxter's reply to Anthony Hollander, 1973
Dear Anthony, we were interested to hear that you think you know how to make living people... your list of necessary items intrigued us!
Biddy Baxter, then editor, Blue Peter

Now aged 44, with three children of his own, Mr Hollander's realisation of how he had foretold his future prompted him once again to fire off a missive to the BBC - although this time it was an e-mail.

Remarkably, unbeknown to Mr Hollander, Baxter had only recently selected his letter to be published in her book, Dear Blue Peter, which charts the programme's correspondence over its first 50 years.

She remembered his "funny" letter very well, and the two have recently discussed its significance.

"It was a letter full of enthusiasm which is, of course, the hallmark of the pre-pubescent child - the audience for whom Blue Peter was and still is intended," she told him.

Reflecting on this unlikely sequence of events, Baxter says: "It was tremendous to find out how Anthony had got on in life. When I got his e-mail I knew exactly who it was."

What Baxter couldn't have known at the time was that it had all started with a stricken bird.

'Sickly child'

One day in 1973 Anthony - a "sickly child" - was off school and at home with his mother, when he found a fatally injured bird in the paved area of their garden in north London.

Biddy Baxter, 2008
Biddy Baxter kept hold of all correspondence from the viewers

"It was in some distress," he recalls today. "My mum was too squeamish to deal with it, so I put it out of its misery. For a nine-year-old it was hard to have to do that."

As he remembers it he got to thinking, about death, and about how he might be able to keep people alive.

"So I did what all sensible children do when in need of practical help with an idea. I wrote to Blue Peter," he said.

"I can vaguely remember I was thinking about re-routing the blood out of the heart and recirculating it. Then they could fix up the heart and it would be alright again. I just didn't want that death stuff to happen."

An intensely curious child, Anthony says he was obsessed with the world around him. But school exams didn't go as well as he'd hoped and it wasn't until he was ensconced in the world of academia that he really flourished. A lack of sufficient grades had meant he couldn't study medicine, but he went on to gain a first class degree in pharmacology.

His childlike notion of dreaming that every part of the body was fixable has never really left him, he says.

Mr Hollander's colleagues at the University of Bristol's School of Medical Sciences, would probably recognise his adult self in the Blue Peter letter - not least his poor spelling - he says, and he expects a "ribbing" about it.

Claudia Castillo
Claudia Castillo, whose windpipe was rebuilt with the help of Mr Hollander

"As adults we can tend to lose the capacity to dream and think big. Children will dream unselfconsciously. I still do that - I still go around telling people 'these are the things I want to do'. I don't have time for any kind of scepticism."

Last week the professor - who is to be honoured with a Blue Peter gold badge - told Baxter: "I remember being thrilled at the time to have been taken seriously. Actually, even nowadays I am thrilled when people take my ideas seriously. I know that might sound strange to you. But my way of doing science is to think up a hundred theories, however mad, and work through them until I find one that fits the data."

He added: " If you had failed to reply, or had treated my letter as a joke (as perhaps others might have done) it could well have altered the course of my life.

"You had a very precious role to play in dealing with the many and varied child-minds presented to you and that important work is now being continued."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

What a brilliant tale of enthusiasm, passion and encouragement in these otherwise dark times. Small, seemingly insignificant things we adults do or say to children can have such a far-reaching impact. As adults we have a duty to encourage, not disparage children.
Helen, Bedale, Yorkshire

What a fantastic story. It must bring a smile to every reader's face, and a warm feeling to go back in time and dwell on that place we all shared as children, devoted to Blue Peter… Our programme that was serious telly for kids.

Enormous congratulations to Professor Hollander, and massive thanks and respect to Biddy Baxter for all that she did and brought to several generations.
Martin Giblin, Formby, Liverpool, UK

What a beautiful story, so inspiring. It made me think of how impressionable children are and that if all of us were to look back on our lives there would have been someone who inspired us at some point. I do hope that with all the PC forced onto teachers and alike that we don't forget to 'think outside the box' and empower children to turn their dreams into reality.
Nicola Weaver, Basingstoke, England

A great story. One that serves to remind us that you shouldn't stop dreaming. You've just brightened my day.
Jonathan, Edinburgh

Great article. It really shows just how important it is to encourage children to follow their dreams and ideas. We should all take note.
Mark, Chelmsford

It comes as no surprise that Mr Hollander expressed his desire to go into medicine at so young an age. I was five when I told a family friend that I wanted to do something in music when I grew up and 12 when I informed my cello teacher that I wanted to teach the cello. I came from a working class, non-musical family and am doing just what I said I would.
K Tucker, Horsham

Great story indeed. I have an old junior school essay (written when I was around eight or nine) that states "when I grow up I want to be an artist". I'm now 46 and have been a graphic designer all my working career.
Steve Edwards, Hampton, UK

Amazing. It is amazing what a little direction and positive encouragement of a child can do. Perhaps it's not Professor Hollander saving lives, but the ethos of Blue Peter. It is so good to hear some good news for once about children's TV.
Grant, Bristol

What a superb and heart warming account. It goes to show how a little encouragement and belief goes such a very long way. Parents and employers take note.
Anne-Marie, Dorset

What a wonderful inspiring letter -It reminds us that often the small things we do can have an enormous impact on others. Thank goodness for Biddy.
Cheryl Morgan, Raglan, Wales

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