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Biographical entry Harper, William Michael (1955 - 2008)

MRCS and FRCS 2002; MB ChB Leicester 1980; MD 1995.

13 May 2008
Orthopaedic surgeon and Trauma surgeon


William Michael Harper was professor of orthopaedic trauma at the University of Leicester. Born in Jersey, 'Joe' Harper was proud of his roots in the Channel Islands and was equally fond of the years he spent in Bolton, Lancashire, where he went to school. Harper was one of the pioneering band of students that made up the first cohort at the Leicester Medical School in 1975. A gap year before commencing his studies was not spent trekking in the Himalayas, but in a factory in Bolton. Not one of the archetypal medical students of his day, 'Joe' Harper possessed a mop of unruly hair, generally had a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and had a broad Lancastrian accent. He did not flaunt his academic ability, but never struggled with the course work and moved easily into his clinical studies. This period of undergraduate training was interrupted on two occasions. He apparently caught chicken pox from a patient and was banished from the wards. According to a colleague, he 'attempted to make an early comeback but he was, in more ways than one, "spotted"'. A fractured femur, under unknown circumstances, occasioned an even longer absence and may have stimulated his later interest in orthopaedics.

Awarded his MB ChB in 1980, he undertook junior surgical training in Leicester, where he obtained his first true exposure to his chosen specialty in the trauma and orthopaedics unit. It was said by one of his classmates that: 'the odds on his becoming a professor would have been as long as on an Englishman winning Wimbledon!"'

He moved around the country to obtain more experience in general surgery at senior training level, before returning to Leicester as a lecturer in orthopaedic surgery. His academic career blossomed in the department then run by Paul Gregg. From 1988 to 1990, he held the Smith and Nephew trauma research fellowship in the department of orthopaedic surgery. During this specialist training, Harper researched different questions in the management of fractures of the neck of the femur. In a randomised trial, he evaluated internal fixations and hemiarthroplasties. He assessed the results and attempted to find the best surgical option, also noting the modes of treatment failure. This work was submitted to the university for an MD thesis in 1995.

Completion of his higher surgical training saw him appointed as a senior lecturer/honorary consultant in trauma and orthopaedic surgery at the University of Leicester in 1993. His work on fractures of the neck of the femur continued and he established the renowned Trent regional arthroplasty study with Gregg in 1989. This was the inspiration for the National Joint Registry, now well established by the Department of Health. Much of this work continues, as does the new undergraduate musculoskeletal programme in the University. He fought hard to maintain trauma and orthopaedics as an independent department within the medical school.

In the mid-nineties, Harper was appointed as clinical director of the trauma unit at the Leicester Royal Infirmary and was instrumental in changing clinical practice in several important ways. These included the appointment of a consulting physician to oversee the medical management of patients with fractures of the neck of the femur and nurse-led clinics for simple fractures. A framework of management for complex trauma was established and soft tissues were not ignored, and he set up and ran a multidisciplinary team for the management for bone and soft tissue tumours. As professor, he made a significant contribution to research and training, and in the Trent region area developed various aspects of his chosen specialty, particularly in the management of sarcoma.

It took nobody by surprise at this later stage when 'Joe' Harper became professor of orthopaedic trauma at Leicester University in 1997 and, not long after that, head of the academic unit when Paul Clegg moved to Newcastle. He ran a busy research unit, publishing extensively on outcomes of arthroplasty of the hip and knee. Under his guidance many young doctors completed their MD dissertations on subjects ranging from cementation in hip arthroplasty to infection management.

Increasingly senior roles in UK orthopaedics engaged his attention and he was the chairman of the Association of Professors of Orthopaedic Surgery from 2000 to 2003, a member of the Intercollegiate Specialty Board of Examiners for Trauma and Orthopaedic Surgery from 2002, and of the Specialist Advisory Committee in the disciplines from 2005. With his publishing skills, he became a valued member of the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery for two terms. These commitments were enough for a very full life, but he spent much time on local issues, being very supportive of his staff and colleagues, all of whom held him in the highest regard.

Outside these commitments, he enjoyed a relaxed family life. With his wife Liz and daughter Alice he spent time in northern France, renovating a farm cottage over many years. He was a lifelong collector of stamps, Marvel comics and cards.

Throughout a two-year illness leading to his death on the evening of 13 May 2008 he managed to maintain his optimism and showed great courage and independence, pursuing his clinical and academic work almost to the end. He was survived by his wife and daughter. Of his open-minded approach, it was recorded: 'There could be no doubt that, with "Joe" Harper, what you saw was what you got.'

N Alan Green

Sources used to compile this entry: [Information from Keith Tucker, University of Leicester Medical Bulletin, Summer 2008; Kevin West, British Orthopaedic Association, Members Newsletter, Summer 2008; Joe Dias and Chris Kershaw].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England