My Salieri Complex

An Untold Story of Griffin and Kemp

(dedicated to H.G. Wells)

by Marina Julia Neary

(University College, London, 1884)

“Awake, Samuel!  Boarding with a genius will not transform you into one.”

That was the voice of reason, one that guided me through most of my career.  Yet another voice, one of superstition and vanity, tried to persuade me of the opposite.  How I wished to believe that a fraction of Jonathan Griffin’s brilliance could project onto me if I only spent enough time in his vicinity!  I fancied our brains being like two communicating vessels, with grandiose theories and mysteries passing between them.  Little by little, that toxic swamp of self-flattering fantasies sucked me in.

Griffin, a native of Cardiff, was almost three years younger than me but only one year behind in his coursework.  He transferred to University College in the autumn of 1883, allegedly to study medicine.  I emphasize the word “allegedly”.  From the very beginning I had serious doubts that this man had any intention of treating patients for the rest of his life.  As I learned later, medicine was the profession of his father’s choice.  Griffin feigned compliance only to gain access to London’s best library and laboratory.  He took most interest in optical density and refraction index, two topics that had very little to do with medicine.

We enrolled in the same physics seminar led by Professor Handley, my intellectual father, who promised me an assistant’s position after my graduation as well as the hand of his daughter Elizabeth.  Everyone in the department regarded me as Professor Handley’s heir, the future king of the laboratory.  At least, that was the case until Griffin’s arrival.  In one week this eighteen-year old boy with a Welsh accent toppled the hierarchy that had been in place since my first solo demonstration in 1881.  When Griffin would enter the lecture hall, all the chatter would cease and then turn into a collective sigh of veneration.

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