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Biographical entry Harper, Howard Fyfe (1930 - 2011)

MRCS LRCP 1961; MB BS London 1962; DO RCSI 1966; FRCS 1970; FRCOphth 1989; BD Serampore.

1 November 1930
Te Kuiti, New Zealand
19 October 2011
Ophthalmic surgeon


Howard Fyfe Harper was a pioneering ophthalmic surgeon who worked in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. He was born in Te Kuiti, New Zealand, the son of William Stanley Blyth Harper, a chemist, and Esther Harper née Fortune, a schoolteacher. He was educated at Auckland Grammar School, but left early to take up a building apprenticeship. Deciding building was not for him, he became a menswear salesman in Auckland and in Sydney, before attending a two-year Bible study course in Auckland.

At the age of 23 he sailed to Pakistan, as a missionary. After touring on his motorbike and seeing the desperate need for eye surgeons, he decided to train to become a surgeon. He thought England offered the best training in eye surgery, and in 1954 went to London. Having left school with no qualifications, he needed first to attend a 'cramming school', as he described it, to pass the relevant exams.

He was accepted by University College London and, while at medical school, also studied Urdu and Islamic law at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Qualifying in 1961, he then became a house physician in Ipswich and a house surgeon in Hereford.

In 1963 he and his German wife Monika, whom he had married in 1960, headed to Pakistan, to fulfil his long-held dream of helping the people of Central Asia. He was a senior house officer at the Christian Hospital in Taxila, west Pakistan, and a registrar in surgery and ophthalmology at the United Christian Hospital in Lahore from 1964 to 1965. He also helped run a number of eye camps, combined with missionary work.

Harper moved to Afghanistan in the mid-1960s, and worked in several Kabul hospitals, and established the Noor Eye Hospital. In 1973 he was forced to leave Afghanistan following a coup, and moved to Iran, where he was professor of ophthalmology at the University of Mashhad.

In 1977 Harper and his wife moved to the UK, so their three daughters could attend secondary schools and experience Western culture. He became a consultant ophthalmologist at Kent and Sussex Hospital in Tunbridge Wells, where he established the first cataract day-surgery clinic. He continued to make annual visits to Pakistan, and built a clinic at Gilgit.

After the collapse of Communism, Harper, now retired from the NHS, seized the opportunity to establish eye clinics in some of the former states of the Soviet Union, and established the charity Vision International. With money from fundraising and some government help, he established a large eye hospital in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and started to work in Mongolia, where an eye clinic, a community centre and the first ever hospice were built in Ulan Bator.

In 2002, following the occupation of Afghanistan by American-led forces, Howard returned 'home' to Kabul, to help organise the rebuilding of the Noor Eye Hospital, which had been seriously damaged by the Taliban. In the same year, the former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, wanted to present Harper with a medal for his services to the people of Afghanistan. He declined the offer, but asked for an Afghani passport instead, and on 30 November 2002 became an Afghani citizen, only the second foreigner to have been granted this status.

He was also honoured in his native country. He was presented with an Augusta award from Auckland Grammar School, a prestigious award presented to old boys who have made an outstanding contribution in their field of service. He was also recognised at the annual World Class New Zealand Awards.

He fought liver cancer for over two years, travelling between England and Kabul, where he oversaw the completion of the Noor Eye Hospital and the establishment of two new schools, his last Afghani project. He died in London on 19 October 2011, aged 80, and was survived by his wife, Monika, and their three daughters, Naomi, Faith and Joy. In 2010 Faith published From Kabul with love (Castle Publishing), an account of her father's dedicated and inspiring life, based on the letters he sent home to his father.

Sarah Gillam

Sources used to compile this entry: [The New Zealand Medical Journal 16 December 2011, Vol 124 No 1347 - accessed 18 December 2013; Tolo News - accessed 18 December 2013].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England