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Biographical entry Harmer, William Douglas (1873 - 1962)

MRCS 2 August 1898; FRCS 31 May 1900; BA Cambridge 1895; MA MB BCh 1899; MC 1901; LRCP 1898.

25 August 1873
24 October 1962
Littlestone, Ken
ENT surgeon, General surgeon and Radiologist


Born on 25 August 1873 in Norwich, son of F W Harmer cloth merchant and glacial geologist, and brother of Sir Sidney Harmer KCB, FRS, he was educated at Uppingham and King's College, Cambridge, proceeding to St Bartholomew's Hospital and qualifying in 1898. After qualification and house appointments first at Great Ormond Street and then at St Bartholomew's he taught anatomy and operative surgery obtaining his mastership of surgery in 1901 and being the last graduate to be designated MC as opposed to MChir.

He was appointed warden of the medical college in which capacity he prevented the pre-clinical school from being absorbed into that of University College, thereby preserving the complete entity of the medical school. In 1904 he was appointed assistant surgeon, but in 1906 he contracted a severe pulmonary infection and spent a year at Davos, Switzerland. It was here that he mastered the art of needlework and a piece of embroidery in petit point which he brought back was used as a firescreen in his London home. In 1907, returning fully recovered, he was persuaded by his colleagues to accept full responsibility for the throat department and to give up general surgery as it was thought this would be too arduous. At this period it had been the usual practice for one of the assistant surgeons to have charge of the throat department in addition to his general surgical duties, and Harmer had followed D'Arcy Power. It was also customary at this period for otology, if recognised as a specialty, to be treated in a different department to laryngology. Harmer, far from working less arduously, was busier than ever.

In the 1914-18 war he served as Captain RAMC and made an important contribution to the study of wounds of the larynx, part of the time serving in Russia. He had already in 1913 begun research into the use of radiotherapy in disease of the throat, and after the war he became attached to the Radium Institute and was appointed honorary surgeon to Mount Vernon Hospital, Northwood also. In 1931 he was appointed Semon lecturer to London University, and in 1932 he published a monograph on the use of radiotherapy in the treatment of cancer of the upper air passages. To the end of his active career he treated cancer of the vocal cords by radium needles introduced through a window in the thyroid cartilage, which in his hands gave better results than other forms of treatment. He retired from St Bartholomew's at the age of 55 but continued working at the Radium Institute and Mount Vernon until 1948.

Harmer made a gift to the rare book room of the College library in the shape of a handsome rosewood bookcase, and in 1963 a bequest under his will. A countryman and a keen sportsman with rod and gun, he also played golf at Cambridge down to a handicap of three, with wooden clubs of his own making, and was also a champion skater.

He married in 1906 May, daughter of Dr John Hedley and sister of JP Hedley FRCS. She died suddenly while on holiday in New Zealand in 1954. She had been for many years prominent in the work of the Ladies Guild, the Royal Medical Benevolent Fund. They had three sons, the second of whom, Michael FRCS, is a surgeon at the Royal Marsden Hospital.

He died at his home at Littlestone, Kent on 24 October 1962 aged 89, and a memorial service was held at St Bartholomew's the Less on Wednesday 7 November.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times 25 October 1962 p 17 a and 8 November p 14 g; Lancet 1962, 2, 940 with portrait; Brit med J 1962, 2, 1196 with portrait; King's College Ann Rep 1963, pp 32-35].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England