Professor John Swan (1924-2015), organic chemist

John Swan worked as a junior laboratory assistant at ICIANZ explosives factory from 1940. In 1944 he completed a diploma in applied chemistry at the Royal Melbourne Technical College (now RMIT University). Continuing his studies at the University of Melbourne, he received a BSc in 1947 and was awarded a CSIR (now the CSIRO) scholarship which he used to study at the University of London and complete a PhD in 1949. Returning to Australia, Swan worked as a chemist at the CSIR from 1949 to 1965. During 1953 he was a Fulbright scholar at the Cornell University Medical College, New York, where he was involved in the synthesis of the peptide hormone oxytocin, the structure of which had recently been discovered. In 1966 he moved to Monash University as professor of organic chemistry. From 1971 to 1975 he served as pro vice-chancellor and became dean of the Faculty of Science in 1976 and remained in this position until 1984. After his retirement, he was appointed as an emeritus professor and in 1994 he was awarded a DSc from Monash University.

Interviewed by Professor Ron Brown in 2008.


Getting into chemistry

Professor John Swan, we have been friends since we were undergraduates together at Melbourne University in the 1940s. Can we start this interview with a brief summary of your early days – primary and secondary school, tertiary education et cetera?

It's good to see you, Ron. Well, like many boys of my generation, I started my school education in the state system, but I went to Scotch College for seven years, and I found that a wonderful experience. It wasn't just science; I loved languages and I loved literature, and although I was very modest indeed at sport, I really enjoyed my schooling life.

John, what originally kindled your interest in chemistry?

Aahh! I can see myself as an eight-year-old in the back shed in the garden playing with sulphur, and burning things and watching flames, and I generally got an interest in chemical matters from a very early day.

As you got going in chemistry, of course, you had to go on to tertiary level education. Can you outline for us how you entered the chemical profession?

When I left school, in 1940, the war was on and I felt it was important – even at that age of 16 – to make a contribution. I joined ICIANZ in the No. 5 explosives factory out in Deer Park and I worked for four years as a junior laboratory assistant. We would analyse TNT, cordite, phosgene and all manner of chemicals which were used in the war effort for making munitions. And in the last year of those four, I actually moved from the No. 5 explosives factory across the road to the newly established ICIANZ research laboratory, where we had a very intensive effort in manufacturing sulfamerazine. That was one of the early sulfa drugs, and it became of very great importance in the latter stages of the war, particularly in New Guinea and in Burma, for counteracting the dreadful effects of gastrointestinal infections. (Indeed, I think it was Lord Mountbatten who wrote a history of the Burma campaign where he said that the reason
his armies triumphed over the Japanese was that they had sulfamerazine and the Japanese did not.) That was an interesting experience.

The war was nearly over when I left that employment and went to Melbourne University. But, during the four years that I was working, I did complete an applied chemistry diploma at the Royal Melbourne Technical College, now known as RMIT University, and that was wonderful. I worked at the college from 5.30 till 10 o'clock for four nights a week, and the rest of the day out at Deer Park. [laugh] The combination of working in a scientific laboratory during the day and studying chemistry at night somehow suited me. That was an interesting time: there was blackout through Melbourne, and travel wasn't easy – the trains were very crowded, as they are today. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it and that diploma gave me admission to Melbourne University in the second year rather than the first year. And that is where I met you, in second year chemistry.

Yes. I remember that all of us in the laboratory class envied your manipulative skills. We felt you were a cut above the rest of the class. The things that we found hard, you found easy!

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Experience overseas

In the late 1940s, after we got our degree at Melbourne, you went to the UK. What prompted you to further your career overseas at that stage rather than stay in Australia?

Well, at Christmas time in 1946 I was having a holiday down at Lorne with a whole group of my contemporaries, many of whom were working in CSIRO (CSIR as it was in those days) and some in industry. At that stage I was about to embark on a masters program with Bill Davies, the organic chemistry professor at Melbourne in our day. One of my friends said, 'Why don't you apply for one of these CSIR studentships? They're looking to send some scholars overseas to do PhDs in Europe and you might succeed.' So I sat down by the campfire and wrote – in handwriting – an application for one of those scholarships. And I got one. After a few months of starting a masters program in 1947, I found this wonderful offer from CSIR to go to a UK university, and I chose Imperial College at London. By late 1947, then, I was embarked on a PhD program there. It was just by happenstance, really.

John, a few years later you gained a Fulbright Award to enable you to go overseas to follow your chemical career. What impact did this have on you?

I gained that award in late 1952, after I had come back to CSIR and joined the Division of Industrial Chemistry. That division had a biochemistry unit under Dr Lennox, and we were very quickly translated into a new wool research laboratory up in Parkville to study the chemical and physical properties of the wool protein. (It was funded by the wool industry, of course.) That involved me very much in peptide synthesis, making small molecules from amino acids, analogous to the big peptides that one finds in nature.

The Fulbright Award allowed me to have one year in one of the pre-eminent peptide laboratories in America, so for the whole of 1953 I was in New York City working with Professor Vincent du Vigneaud in the Cornell University Medical College. He had just discovered the structure of a very, very interesting mammalian hormone called oxytocin, which was widely used in medicine for initiating childbirth. It was a long decapeptide: 10 amino acids with an amide group at the end and a disulphide bond linking two of the amino acids together. We embarked on the synthesis of that molecule and we succeeded. Within 10 months, this team of four or five of us had put together the entire molecule – which in those days was something of a tour de force, I suppose. Indeed, it was a great thrill to us all when that work was recognised in the award to Professor du Vigneaud of a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. That was a very impressive year. I met so many international and other chemists from all round the world in New York City and in America, and I came back to Australia just fired up with enthusiasm for scientific research in chemistry. Great, yes.

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Tackling challenges at Monash University

You worked within the CSIRO until Monash University got started. I recall that you were responsible for naming the university!

[laugh] Yes, that's true. When Monash University was thought about, the initial desire of the government of the day was to call it 'Victoria University of Technology'. I thought, 'That's a crazy idea. There's a Victoria University in New Zealand, there's another Victoria University in Canada and we surely don't want a third one in Melbourne. If you really want to emphasise technology, why not name it after Australia's greatest technologist, who was General Sir John Monash?' So I wrote to Mr Borthwick, the then minister, and said that this might be worth considering. He apparently thought it was a good idea and put it to the interim council under Sir Robert Blackwood, and they adopted the idea. It became Monash University.

When you came to Monash you had quite a job in front of you in the chemistry department. Can you outline the sorts of things that interested you in getting that new university on its feet?

Well, challenges are always great fun and it certainly was an exciting time to go 'out to the farm', which was more mud than bricks, and to be part of your team. (You had been there for three years founding that new department.) It had that wonderful feeling of excitement that we could do things differently. We were the first of the new universities, along with New South Wales perhaps, and we felt that we were pioneering a whole new way of looking at tertiary education and study of that kind. I found it very exciting.

After your spell in getting the chemistry department well and truly running at Monash, you then moved on to things that contained less chemistry. How did you find them, up to your retirement?

As you would well remember, we had, like many universities, some problems in the '60s with the Vietnam War and the student reaction to it. The vice-chancellor, Sir Louis Matheson, invited me to become his first pro vice-chancellor to help him with the administrative difficulties that were facing us because of campus upsets and unrest. As before, I thought, 'Well, that's a new challenge and I'll do my best.' So I became pro vice-chancellor with a strong emphasis on student affairs. I enjoyed that, but after five years of it I felt I'd like to get back closer to my scientific roots. At that time, professor Westfold had just retired from being the dean of the science faculty, and I applied for that position and was offered it. In effect, I went from being professor of organic chemistry to five years of pro vice-chancellor, very heavy administration – and I enjoyed that too – and back to the science faculty, where I was again very much involved with my scientific colleagues.

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Water and the environment

How did you, a chemist, become involved with environmental issues?

While I was at Monash and during the pro vice-chancellor years, Sir Henry Bolte's Victorian government had decided that Western Port was to be the 'Ruhr of Australia'; it was to be the centre and focus for a major industrial development. Things got to the point where big companies, like BHP, were buying huge slabs of land on French Island. The State Electricity Commission bought a large piece of land for a potential atomic power station on French Island. There was talk of building a causeway to connect French Island to the mainland, via a bridge of some kind. And there was an enormous reaction to this proposition by people who really cared for Western Port as a wonderful natural environment which had been little touched by industry up to that point.

The government accepted – with, I'm glad to say, strong financial support from industries – the need to examine the environmental consequences of the Bolte plan for industrialising Western Port. It commissioned Professor Shapiro from the United States to come to Australia in 1972, and he did two- or three-year major study. I was made the chairman of the scientific advisory committee for the study. That brought me into a much wider circle of interests and involvement with industry and with community groups, and greatly heightened my awareness of environmental issues, leading me into many other environmental matters of that kind. The study was concluded very successfully. It put an end [brief laugh] to the government's dreams of that industrial development, and a very much more modest development occurred as a result.

The Shapiro report still stands as a very important environmental document because he, more than those conducting any previous such study, had integrated the need to consult the people, to look at the social implications of all the people who lived in the catchment. It was very much a catchment study. Things that go wrong in Western Port can often be attributed to what is happening 20, 30, 50 kilometres inland on the catchment, from where the waters gradually drain into the bay. So that study was impressive.

Your interest in water and the environment continued after you retired from Monash, I believe.

Yes. By the time of the Shapiro report I had acquired a holiday house on Phillip Island. I had learned to sail a boat, courtesy of a boat that you sold me – a lovely Mirror Dinghy. Oh, it was wonderful. My wife and I taught our four children how to sail, and we had a small farm there. Through one thing and another I got very interested in the Phillip Island Conservation Society, which was a very active and vigorous group aiming to keep an appropriate proportion of development and care for the environment in terms of the very many remarkable natural features of Phillip Island. So I got involved very much in Western Port matters – to the point that, shortly after I retired, I did something I had never dreamed I would do: I actually stood for public office.

In those days, the water authorities were elected by vote – the citizens could vote for their water commissioners. I put my name forward and I had a ballot paper, but I was told by all the experts that, unless I joined one of those coordinated teams (you know, you joined this or that Liberal, Labor or other party) I didn't have a hope. I took no notice. I said, 'They either vote for me or they don't; I will not have anything to do with that side of politics,' and I got in. I was elected to the Water Board. Then began an exciting nine years because, after two years, the Kennett government came into power and cancelled all the voting for water authorities and simply appointed them on the basis that the best board for a body like that is composed of a range of people with the right balance of skills – scientific, environmental, engineering, public health. So that is the way they created the newly appointed water boards. I was appointed to Westernport Water, and I became very much involved in catchment management.

I found that there was a barbed-wire fence around our reservoir, the Candowie Reservoir, and there were cattle and sheep grazing up to the barbed-wire fence just 20 metres from the water. We made a major effort talking to the farmers, getting them on side, teaching them how to fence off all their streams and to plant lots of trees around spots where erosion was occurring, and we gave them money to help with those projects. I had five or seven years of active involvement in local catchment management, and that was an interesting experience.

It led to other things. In the early 1990s a very interesting study of Port Phillip Bay, a kind of Shapiro study, was done by CSIRO and Melbourne Water. I was on the scientific advisory board for that too, and that was just as fascinating as the study of Western Port.

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Wide-ranging chemistry achievements

Looking back over your very long and distinguished career, John, which particular things in chemistry would you say gave you the greatest satisfaction?

Oh, gosh. I hope you won't find this too long a list! First I'd have to go back to the war time, when in that fourth year of my employment I worked on the sulfamerazine project. That was interesting.

In the end of that year, I can well remember, Dr Finn came into my laboratory one morning and said, 'We've just been sent this very interesting patent from Switzerland, of an amazing new insecticide called DDT. Here's a description of how to make it.' So by lunchtime I had made 50 grams of DDT. By the end of that year, ICI was making a tonne a week down at Yarraville. It really was a remarkably successful insecticide and it still is, despite all the negative publicity about it – I won't go into all the details, but it still has a role to play, particularly on indoor surfaces of houses in Africa. You don't spray it all over the countryside, but you can make the inside of your house virtually lethal to mosquitoes with an extremely cheap and easily manufactured chemical, which isn't quite as bad as it has been painted. To be involved in that was another interesting experience.

One of the things I did when I was with CSIRO in the early days was to find a new method for breaking the disulphide bond, which is such an important feature of all proteins, by a method which we called 'oxidative sulphitolysis'. You could simply cleave the sulphur-sulphur linkage with a mixture of sodium sulphite and an oxidising agent. That was quite an important breakthrough in the way to unravel the proteins before doing other chemistry to them.

I have spoken briefly about synthesising oxytocin. When we were doing that work, oxytocin was used only – but widely – for initiating childbirth. The only supply of this chemical that was available for the purpose was human oxytocin, obtained from pituitary glands of deceased people, and was always contaminated with a very closely related peptide called vasopressin. Unfortunately, vasopressin, in addition to being an important hormone to let down the milk for a lactating mother, causes the blood pressure to rise, and the last thing the obstetrician wants when he gives oxytocin is contamination with another hormone that will cause blood pressure to rise. The synthesis of oxytocin made it possible for the chemical industry to make pure oxytocin without contamination, and that work was interesting.

I have been amused to see in recent years that oxytocin has now got a far wider coverage of public awareness. If you'll allow me, I'll read you something about oxytocin from a recent scientific article:

"It has been called the love hormone, the cuddle chemical and liquid trust. It peaks with orgasm, makes a loving touch magically melt away stress and increases generosity when given as a drug. Oxytocin is the essence of affection itself, the brain chemical that warmly bonds parent to child, lover to lover, friend to friend, and it could soon be unleashing its loved-up powers far and wide."

Would you believe this?

Oxytocin, they go on to say, has long been used in labour and so on, but it's now become a very interesting chemical in the functioning of the brain and the whole gamut of human emotions to do with friendship, which I find intriguing. [laugh]

It sounds as if we should be spraying people with oxytocin!

Well, yes. Among other interesting and satisfying things, while I was with CSIRO I found a new method for making alkenes by rapidly breaking down, very easily and at very high yield, chemicals called 2-chloro-alkyl phosphonic acids. This was even employed by one food company in America, because ethylene is a gas which promotes the ripening of fruit, and all fruits when they ripen naturally give off ethylene. If you've got a cool store with 10,000 bananas or whatever in it and you want them to ripen more quickly, you can release ethylene into it. Because not everybody can handle gaseous ethylene or if they don't like doing it that way, you could use my chemical 2-chloro-alkyl phosphonic acid, drop it into sodium bicarbonate and generate ethylene in a chemical way. That was actually used in some places in America for food ripening.

Another thing that I took some pleasure and pride in occurred in the early days of Monash. Shortly after I went to Monash, I was approached by Dr Bill Keogh of the Victorian Anti-Cancer Council to ask whether I could undertake a major survey of all the cigarettes on sale in Australia, in terms of their yields of tar and nicotine when smoked. I've always been a non-smoker and I've always felt very sorry for people who do become addicted to nicotine, because it's so detrimental to their health. Anyway, I took on this task. We built a smoking machine and hired a technical assistant to run it, and we started analysing all of the cigarettes available in Australia. This caused an enormous amount of public interest – it was front-page news in the newspapers, being the first such survey ever done – and the government took great interest in it.

Our work had the bizarre effect of making the two lowest nicotine brands (Hallmark was one of them) become best sellers, simply because, since they were known to be low in nicotine and tar, people smoked more of them. This was a tragedy; the effect wasn't good. Nevertheless, after a few years the government was sufficiently interested to set up its own service: for a number of years the Department of Health in Canberra ran a similar survey of cigarettes, and people at least were informed as to the high-nicotine and low-nicotine cigarettes.

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Academic innovation and environment research

Your inquiring mind has addressed more than conventional chemical issues. What are some other achievements that have given you satisfaction?

You have mentioned my years as pro vice-chancellor. It was an interesting experience to move from purely scientific research to administration and, likewise, to the dean's job. One of the things that I did do when I was pro vice-chancellor which has had a lasting effect, not only at Monash but in all the other universities of Australia, is that we introduced what is now known as the gap program. Students could apply to come to Monash University and then decide to ask for a year off before actually walking through the gate into year one. They could go and work or travel or try other options. They could read more; they could escape from the stresses and strains of completing their final year at high school and come back a year later and still be guaranteed admission.

Many of my colleagues were apprehensive. They felt that, if we gave a whole lot of free passes in that way, the following year there might be too many students coming in, all with a guaranteed place at Monash. But I argued that, in the following year, there would be an equal number of students who also wanted to travel, to explore other avenues. And that's the way it worked out. It was a great success. The students were very keen to be able to have a place which they could defer for 12 months – to the point that, within a few years, every university in Australia was offering that program and it has now become a very formalised process around the world. For the gap years there are bodies that fund students to travel and guarantee them employment in France, England, Germany, America or wherever. I've got a granddaughter who's having a gap year at the moment, in England.

The other spin-off from that program was that, as we predicted, many of the students who did come back a year later elected to go not into the faculty they had originally chosen but a different one. They had found their feet in terms of their true ambitions and they'd decided that perhaps law wasn't for them but commerce might be, or science was not for them but maybe engineering, or vice versa. So that was something memorable.

I mentioned earlier my interest in environmental issues. Another one of the things that I became involved with during my Monash days was marine science. I felt that there was enormous potential in emphasising the richness and the wealth of the ocean. Seventy-one per cent of the Earth's surface is covered by ocean, and we knew so little about it in the '60s and '70s. Now modern technology and underwater exploration have become very much understood and used, but in those days these things were very much 'terra incognita'. So, along with Martin Canny, professor of botany, and Dr Phillip Law, the well-known polar explorer, we started the Victorian Institute of Marine Sciences. That lasted for some 17 years – we did a major study on the Bass Strait – until it was absorbed into the Victorian government. I think it was a valuable and useful exercise to get the universities collaborating in a coordinated attack on marine science problems.

Perhaps as a result of that, in the early 1990s I was approached by the APPEA, the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, to do a major study of any environmental impacts that offshore oil and gas exploration and development might be having. As it turned out, after a year or so of very intense travelling and studying and examining what was really happening in Bass Strait and off the North West Shelf, I and my two or three colleagues found that the industry had a remarkably clean record. What little oil was getting into the oceans was coming 90 per cent from run-off from the roads of the cities – from tar, from petrol and from car exhausts. The environmental record of the oil and gas explorers was remarkably good. They had developed very, very good technologies indeed to enable them to drill into the bottom of the ocean to get the gas and oil out from oil wells deep under the sea without major spills. The few oil spills that have occurred around the world have nearly always been from tankers that have run aground in big storms, not from oil and gas exploration and development.

I am interested to observe that, in very recent weeks, there has been a lot of talk in America of finally abandoning the total banning of near-offshore oil and gas exploration there, now that they are faced with a looming world shortage of oil and gas. I think they can abandon that ban with confidence, knowing that the skill of the oil and gas engineers is such that they can drill without fear of bad environmental consequences.

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Excursions into wool scouring

What else is on your list of satisfactions?

Well, when I retired from Monash I did something similar to what many retiring professors do (though I didn't stay at the university, as I felt it was important to move away to another environment): I worked for two or three years as an honorary research associate at the Howard Florey Institute. That was great fun. It was what I might call 'all care but no responsibility'. I was back into my peptide synthesis world with Geoff Tregear. Of course, in those days peptide synthesis was becoming absolutely routine, with machines that can synthesise peptides rather than chemists' hands, and we got involved in DNA synthesis as well as peptide synthesis.

Towards the end of those very pleasant three years, I started thinking again about a problem I'd been aware of for many years through early CSIRO work in the wool game – namely, the problem of wool scouring. Wool at that time was still a major important export from Australia, yet the average wool bale would contain no more than 70 to 75 per cent, sometimes 55 per cent, wool. The rest of it would be grease, wool wax, 15 per cent perhaps; dirt, 15 to 20 per cent; and the occasional bicycle chain and bit of barbed wire [laugh] – but huge amounts of dirt, which sticks to the grease, as you would imagine. Cleaning of the wool in a wool scour was one of the most polluting industries that Australia had. An average wool scour working round the clock seven days a week was producing industrial waste equal to the waste from a city of 20,000 people. Recovering the grease and treating the dirty liquor was a major environmental problem, an appalling problem, in the '50s and'60s, despite the improvements that had been made.

So I started thinking about that. I thought of a method for cleaning wool which required no liquid at all – no water, no solvent, just a dry powder. It was very ambitious, but the wool authorities gave me some money. I started a public company called Hallmark Dell Pty Ltd, and I had 30 or 40 ardent and keen shareholders. It taught me an enormous amount about the skills and problems and difficulties of starting a business. I have great admiration for anybody who starts their own business, even if it is just for the simplest of basic things that the public might buy. Anyhow, I rented a factory out in Laverton, I employed two or three staff and we spent a few years working on this process of cleaning wool with the dry powder, aluminum. And it worked. But, tragically, it fell foul of a very common engineering problem called the scale-up factor. It worked fine for one kilogram an hour with a small-scale, one metre wide drum. The moment we tried to make 10 or 100 or 1,000 kilograms an hour, the process ran into serious problems and we couldn't solve them. No engineer was able to help us. They just said, 'It's the scale-up factor.' [laugh] So I gave it away. It was fun, but it didn't suit.

In the last few days before I finally closed the factory, however, I decided, 'Since I can't beat them, I'll join them.' I started thinking about the current detergents being used in wool scouring and I came up with a new way of using those detergents. I patented it – and it worked. An industrial firm, Albright and Wilson (Australia), offered to commercialise the process in partnership with me and my company, and for some years it looked like being a winner. We had something like half the wool scourers in Australia using this modified process. They were saving 25 per cent of the cost of the detergent, they were getting an equally clean product and they were recovering at least as much and sometimes more of the valuable wool grease from the waste liquors. In fact, that by-product was all that was keeping the industry solvent: the labour costs were going up, and in China the labour costs were coming down.

I had one happy day when my commercial collaborators came to me and said, 'It looks like we might be there. In another year or two we'll have paid off all the development costs' – maybe half a million dollars – 'and we'll start paying you a dividend.' Six months later they came back and they said, 'Sorry, the industry has collapsed. It's all gone to China.' Indeed, all the world's wool, including most of Australia's wool, is now scoured in China, in India and by one or two very impressive companies owned and operated by the Italians in cheap labour countries like Bulgaria and Turkey. Cheap labour has had the consequence of Australia losing that important industry. It may come back one day and I keep my fingers crossed. Anyhow, I enjoyed it while I was involved with it and I'm still thinking about it, I really am. [laugh] I have been trying some new tricks on the water system, the aqueous washing, in my kitchen, garage and bathroom (what I call the KGB that support me) and that keeps me thinking about chemistry. I'm still enjoying life very much.

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A very rounded life

John, that's been a fascinating account of your career. You have had a number of other interests as well, however. Can you tell us something about these and perhaps about your family?

I really would like to say that I've very much been a family man. I married Ailsa Lowen in 1952 and we were together in New York City for the famous oxytocin days. I had four children, three girls and a boy, and I just so enjoyed teaching them how to swim, how to sail a boat, how to ride a bicycle, how to kick a ball, how to skip, how to jump and go camping in the bush. I taught them all the joys and wonders of bird watching, which was a lovely hobby. That was a very important part of my life.

I have had other hobbies also. I loved playing the piano and I still do; I've taken it up again in my retirement. I was never very good at sport at school, but I played them all – cricket, football, golf, tennis, rowing. (Rowing I loved.)

In my retirement, in recent years, I've taken up the fabulous and wonderful sport of lawn bowls, would you believe? I play twice a week. It's really a very, very challenging, interesting and quite exciting game, and it is a very friendly game. That is a major interest now. Another interest in recent years is bicycle riding – I do 30 kilometres every Friday with a group called the 'Too Old Bicycle Club' – and I play bridge.

All in all, I think I've had a very rounded life. I know that in this interview I have emphasised the scientific side of things, but there has been another side and I've enjoyed that too.

Professor Swan, thank you very much for sharing your life and experiences with us on this occasion.

Thank you, Ron, for being my interviewer. It's been great to renew our friendship across the table in this way.

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