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Biographical entry Harman, Nathaniel Bishop (1869 - 1945)

MRCS 9 July 1895; FRCS 8 December 1898; BA Cambridge 1897; MB BCh 1898; MA 1901; Hon LLD Manchester 1931.

23 April 1869
13 June 1945
Crockham Hill, Kent
Ophthalmic surgeon


Born 23 April 1869, seventh child and third son, but the first son to survive, of Walter John Harman of Highgate and his wife née Bellamy, who came of a City family, owners of Bellamy's Wharf. He was educated at the City of London School and at St John's College Cambridge, of which he was a foundation scholar and afterwards Hutchison research student. He took his clinical training at the Middlesex Hospital, qualifying in 1895, and came under the influence of William Lang (1852-1937), with whom he later worked for many years as clinical assistant in the hospital's eye department. He then took first-class honours in both parts of the Natural Sciences Tripos, 1897-98, and was appointed lecturer in anatomy at Caius and King's Colleges, Cambridge. He was also University demonstrator of anatomy, and subsequently an examiner in anatomy.

Harman volunteered for service in the South African war, as a civil surgeon to the Field Force. He won the Queen's medal with five clasps, and wrote a thesis on veldt sore. When he came back to England he began to practise in London as an ophthalmologist, working at Moorfields (the Royal London Ophthalmic Hospital) as chief clinical assistant to E Treacher Collins. In 1901 he was appointed ophthalmic surgeon to the Belgrave Hospital for Children. While attaining to a leading ophthalmic practice and making his mark in extra-professional interests, Harman's outstanding work, for which he will be chiefly remembered, was as a pioneer of reforms in the education of children with defective sight. He also made time to take an active part through a long period in the central counsels of the British Medical Association, not least as its honorary treasurer for the record period of fifteen years. Harman's chief hospital connexion was with the West London, where he became ophthalmic surgeon 1909, and was ultimately consulting ophthalmic surgeon; he was also lecturer in ophthalmology and dean of the West London Postgraduate College. He served as consultant oculist to National Institute for the Blind.

In 1902 Harman was appointed ophthalmic consultant to the London School Board, a position he continued to hold when the Board's work was taken over by the education department of the London County Council. Working with James Kerr (1862-1941), School Medical Officer for London 1902-11, he persuaded the authorities to institute special classes for defective-sighted children, and later special "myope" or "sight-saving" schools. This work was beneficial not merely to the children directly concerned, but to those in other countries which quickly followed London's example. Harman became quite a celebrity in America on this count alone. Besides his strictly clinical interest in this problem, Harman was active in designing special equipment for these schools. He was influential in improving school lighting in general and the design of school books.

He served on the Departmental Committees on the Causes and Prevention of Blindness in 1920-22 and 1938, and secured the compulsory notification of ophthalmia neonatorum. In connexion with his BMA work he established the National Eye Service 1929, and persuaded the Association to back its central organ, the National Ophthalmic Treatment Board, of which he was chairman, by advancing a substantial loan, which, as he foresaw, was fully and quickly repaid. This body provides qualified eye examination for those unable to afford a private specialist's fee. Two of his books, Preventable blindness 1907 and The eyes of our children 1915, were addressed to the general public and made some mark. He wrote numerous books and articles on clinical and professional subjects, and invented several widely used ophthalmic instruments. Harman also wrote poetry, and was a contributor to the Hibbert Journal and in some demand as a speaker in the Unitarian Church, of which he was a prominent member. If so versatile an intellect can be said to have had a special interest, it was in the philosophy of religion. He served as president of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Churches in 1937-38. He was something of an artist and had a scholarly knowledge of the history of architectural ornament. Harman was a member of the Ophthalmological Society of the United Kingdom for forty-five years, and demonstrated to it in 1909 his diaphragm test for binocular vision, which became widely adopted.

Harman's connexion with the British Medical Association began in the Marylebone division, which he served successively as honorary secretary, treasurer and chairman; he was also active in the Metropolitan Counties branch, of which he became president in 1922-23. His first contact with the central work of the Association was as a member of the Representative Body at its first meeting in 1903, but he did not attend it again regularly till 1911. In 1915 he was elected to the Council and during 1915-1919 undertook the arduous work of joint secretary of the Central Medical War Committee, which allocated medical men to appropriate national service; his colleague was Alfred Cox, OBE, medical secretary of the BMA 1912-32. As chairman of the Hospitals Committee 1920-24, the policy which he successfully promoted was statesmanlike in its anticipation of the evolution of hospital services. In 1924 he was elected honorary treasurer of the Association for five years; he did his work so well that he was twice re-elected, and retired only in 1939. When he took charge of the purse, the Association had newly moved from the Strand to Tavistock Square; Harman was active in his foreseeing guidance of the developments consequent on that move. His advice was also taken about the physical appearance of the Association's house. He was awarded the Association's highest honour, its gold medal, in 1931 and was later elected a vice-president.

On the scientific side of the BMA Harman served as chairman of the Council's ophthalmology committee and of the committee of the ophthalmic practitioners' group. He was president of the section of ophthalmology at the Winnipeg meeting 1930. In 1931 he was given an Honorary Doctorate of Laws at Manchester, and was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Academy of Medicine of Ireland in 1933. He served for many years as treasurer of the National Insurance Defence Trust Fund. He was nominated in 1929 a direct representative for England and Wales on the General Medical Council, in the room of Sir Thomas Jenner Verrall, MRCS (1852-1929); he was later appointed to the Dental Board and became its treasurer. Harman was a generous benefactor to the British Medical Association: in 1924 he presented the treasurer's golf cup, and in 1929 a symbolic staff to be carried at formal meetings; by law and custom a mace may be carried only at corporate meetings, or before the official representatives, of bodies incorporate by royal charter. His wife, herself a doctor, endowed in 1926 the Katharine Bishop Harman prize, to be awarded by the Association for research into disorders of maternity. In 1939 he founded a clinical prize and bequeathed £1,000 to the Association to increase this prize.

Harman married in 1905 Katharine Chamberlain, MB BS London, daughter of Arthur Chamberlain, JP of Moor Green Hall, Birmingham, and niece of the Right Honourable Joseph Chamberlain, MP PC. She survived him with two sons and two daughters; a third son had died in 1941. The elder surviving son, John Bishop Harman, FRCP and S, was physician to out-patients at St Thomas's Hospital when his father died, and the elder daughter, Elizabeth, was the wife of the Hon Frank Pakenham, created Lord Pakenham in 1945, a student of Christ Church and heir presumptive to the sixth Earl of Longford. Bishop Harman died on 13 June 1945, after a long illness cheerfully borne, at Larksfield, Crockham Hill, near Edenbridge, Kent, where he had lived for many years; while he had practised at 108 Harley Street. He left several large charitable bequests. Harman had personal charm, coupled with versatility and originality of mind, as well as business ability. He was philosophically cheerful and the best of friends.

The palpebral and oculomotor apparatus in fishes, morphology and development London. 1899.
The conjunctiva in health and disease. London, 1905.
Preventable blindness: ophthalmia of the newborn and its effects: with a plea for its suppression. London, 1907.
Congenital cataract. Treasury of human inheritance, edited by Karl Pearson. 1909, 1, section 13a.
The diaphragm test for binocular vision. Ophthal Rev. 1909, 28, 93.
The eyes of our children. London, 1915.
Staying the plague. London, 1917.
Analysis of 4,288 cases of blindness. Brit med J. 1921, 1, 782.
Myope classes. Brit med J. 1924, 1, 203.
Aids to Ophthalmology. 9th edition, London, 1940.
Science and religion. London, 1935.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times, 16 June 1945, p 8f, 8 December, will; Lancet, 1945, 1, 803, with eulogies by Sir John Parsons, CBE, FRS, and Dr Alfred Cox, OBE, p 836 with portrait, eulogy by Sir W Allen Daley, MD, FRCP, chief medical officer of the LCC; Brit med J. 1945, 1, 888, with portrait, p 927, eulogy by Sir W A Daley, and p 934 correction; Brit J Ophthal. 1945, 29, 440, with good portrait; Med Officer, 1945, 73, 198, with eulogy by Sir W A Daley; information from Mrs Bishop Harman].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England