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Biographical entry Highet, William Bremner (1911 - 1942)

MRCS and FRCS 8 December 1938; MB ChB New Zealand 1934.

10 April 1911
Dunedin, New Zealand
7 December 1942
Orthopaedic surgeon


Born at Dunedin, New Zealand, on 10 April 1911, eldest child of the six sons and one daughter of David Highet and Elsie Bremner his wife; his parents survived him. He was educated at the Musselburgh primary school and the Otago Boys High School, both at Dunedin, and took his medical training at the Otago University School of Medicine, where he won junior and senior scholarships and a university national scholarship. After serving as house surgeon at Dunedin Hospital he went as medical officer with the second Byrd expedition to the Antarctic. He next spent three months in the United States en route for England, where he served as resident orthopaedic officer at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. Subsequently as resident medical officer at the Royal Cancer Hospital he studied bone tumours, and as resident surgical officer at the Princess Beatrice Hospital he inaugurated a septic-finger clinic in connexion with the fracture clinic.

In December 1938 he took the Fellowship, not being previously a Member of the College, and in April 1940 was elected Nuffield scholar in orthopaedic surgery for work at the Wingfield-Morris Hospital at Headington, near Oxford. He later resigned this scholarship to become first assistant in the Nuffield Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, and took charge of the peripheral nerve injury centre, with a special research grant from the University of Oxford. In this post he carried out some important physiological researches bearing directly upon his own pioneering clinical work. He won the Jacksonian prize in 1941 with an essay on "Injuries to peripheral nerves, with special reference to the late after results", and was a Hunterian professor elect for 1943. In 1942 he was gazetted temporary lieutenant, RAMC, and was appointed to establish the first nerve-injuries centre for the Army overseas. He was lost at sea on 7 December 1942, aged 31, while on his way to take up this post. Highet married in 1938 Joan Richards, who survived him with a daughter.

Highet was a man of strong enthusiasm and initiative, who found his m├ętier when he became attached to the research team at the Nuffield Orthopaedic Foundation. With John Zachary Young, William Holmes, and Frank Kingsley Sanders, under the direction of Professor Herbert John Seddon, FRCS, he carried out an investigation of the evils of postoperative stretching of nerves sutured after extensive resection. With Professor Seddon he studied the rate of regeneration of nerves, and he developed a technique for investigating anomalous innervation of muscles and cutaneous areas, and in particular the part played by the ulnar nerve in innervation of the thenar muscles, which cleared up difficulties encountered in cases of total median thenar loss. He investigated ischaemic lesions, which he found to be attributable to arterial spasm. He also showed his ingenuity in the devising of special splints. During these two years, when he was publishing important work almost as quickly as he produced it, Highet showed the makings of a great clinical scientist.

Splintage of peripheral nerve injuries. Lancet, 1942, 1, 555.
Innervation and function of thenar muscles. Lancet, 1943, 1, 227.
Procaine nerve block in investigation of peripheral nerve injuries. J Neurol Psychiat 1942, 5, 101-116.
Traction injuries to lateral popliteal nerve and peripheral nerves after suture, with W Holmes. Brit J Surg 1942, 30, 212-233.
The effects of stretching nerves after suture, with F K Sanders. Ibid 1942-3, 30, 355-369.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Lancet, 1943, 1, 666, with portrait and eulogies by W Holmes and H J Seddon, FRCS; Brit med J 1943, 1, 649, eulogy by G R Girdlestone, FRCS, and 711 eulogy by Brigadier George Riddoch, MD, FRCP; NZ med J 1943, 42, 235; information given by Mrs W B Highet].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England