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Biographical entry Harris, John William Simmons (1926 - 2013)

MB BS London 1949; MRCS LRCP 1949; DObst 1951; MRCOG 1953; PhD 1961; FRCOG 1970; FRCS 1985.

6 June 1926
21 June 2013


John Harris was a well-known anatomist who became professor at the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine: he was appointed to the chair on the retirement of Ruth Bowden. It is possible that he had contemplated a career in obstetrics and gynaecology in his early years and was very much a clinical anatomist. As such, he was one of the dwindling number of medically-qualified doctors who choose a career in basic sciences, much to the benefit of undergraduates and postgraduates whom they teach. He was a very worthy recipient of an honorary fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1985, having already gained the fellowship of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

He was born in Hythe, Kent, on 6 June 1926, the son of William Harris, an antiques dealer, and his wife May née Littlewood. His only sister, Penny, was a teacher who emigrated to Toronto, Canada. He went to Maidstone Grammar School for his secondary education, where he was not particularly athletic, but excelled in science subjects.

John won a scholarship to train at St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical College, and undertook his preclinical studies in Cambridge, whence the preclinical school had been evacuated during the Second World War. Luftwaffe bombing had damaged or destroyed some of the buildings at Charterhouse Square, and the preclinical school was evacuated to Cambridge, where Bart's students were resident in Queens' College. Students and teaching staff shared the excellent facilities of the University of Cambridge, including lecture theatres and the anatomy dissecting room. Their teachers were all appointed to serve Bart's Medical College and supervise their preclinical studies. W J Hamilton, initially a rather intimidating figure, with a Northern Irish accent, was well-known for teaching clinically relevant anatomy. He stressed the importance of structure as it related to function, and introduced students early to surface and radiological anatomy. Hamilton Hartridge taught the students physiology, mainly following his own textbook, and Arthur Wormall, with Harry Gordon Reeves, taught biochemistry.

Returning to St Bartholomew's Hospital for his clinical studies, most of his tuition was in West Smithfield, although the more specialised units, such as orthopaedic and chest surgery, still remained at Hill End Hospital, St Albans, the evacuated site.

Qualifying in 1949, John was appointed as a house surgeon to the surgical professorial unit from July 1949 for six months, working with Sir James Paterson Ross. Having also developed an interest in obstetrics and gynaecology, he served as an 'intern and extern' midwifery assistant until June 1950. He developed a further interest in this field as a house surgeon in obstetrics and gynaecology at Farnborough Hospital, Kent, during which time he passed the diploma of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, often regarded as a passport to a career in general practice. Finally, as part of the General Medical Council requirements, he undertook a house physician post at Farnborough hospital.

It was during his time as a house surgeon at St Bartholomew's Hospital that he met his future wife, Sonia Naish, a Bart's nurse and later a theatre sister. They married in 1951 when he was working Farnborough Hospital, Kent. Her parents were shop retailers.

His commitment to obstetrics and gynaecology continued when he obtained a registrar post at the Luton and Dunstable hospital for two years from June 1952, a hospital that had strong links with St Bartholomew's Hospital. Having passed the membership examination of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (MRCOG) in 1953, he undertook six months as a casualty officer at the Luton and Dunstable Hospital, and must surely have been the only casualty officer in the UK with the MRCOG at the time.

It is not known whether he did intend to pursue a career in anatomy at this time, as many budding surgeons worked as demonstrators in anatomy, physiology or pathology for a year or more whilst studying for the FRCS. Having obtained a position as demonstrator in the London Hospital Medical College anatomy department in March 1955, he held the post for seven years. So by now his future career had been decided, and in 1961 he went for a year to the USA as a Rockefeller Foundation fellow to the department of embryology, Carnegie Institution for Science, Washington.

Starting at the London Hospital Medical College, he enjoyed teaching topographical and neurological anatomy and embryology to medical and dental students. Teaching applied anatomy to student nurses, physiotherapists, student and postgraduate radiographers and laboratory technicians was part of an increasingly busy schedule. He enjoyed teaching embryology to BSc students.

Many of his research interests were in the field of embryology. The development of the mammalian secondary palate and the production of cleft palate by experimental techniques was one, but his early training in obstetrics and gynaecology dictated other interests. These were 'The morphology of human uretero-placental blood vessels throughout the course of pregnancy', 'Intravascular trophoblast in monkey, baboon and human uteri with the placenta in situ' and 'The effect of thalidomide on rabbit, rat, mouse and chick embryos'. Presumably this was connected with the ghastly malformations seen in children born to mothers taking the drug thalidomide during pregnancy.

In 1962, having returned from Washington DC, John was appointed as a senior lecturer in anatomy at the London Hospital Medical College, a position he held until September 1967, when he moved as reader in anatomy to the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine. In April 1973 he had the title of professor of anatomy conferred on him.

His great interest in clinical anatomy was apparent as he organised courses on surgical anatomy for postgraduate students taking the primary FRCS and those sitting part one of the MRCOG.

John was well known as very fair examiner in the primary FRCS examinations, always correcting mistakes and testing knowledge very broadly. From 1972 to 1981 he examined for the Royal Colleges of Surgeons of England. From 1978 to 1992 he examined for the Edinburgh College, and from 1980 to 1992 for the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. At national level he was visiting examiner in anatomy to six London-based medical schools and the University of Liverpool. Abroad his skills were obvious as an external examiner for the universities of Ghana and Singapore, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Active in the affairs of London University, he became honorary secretary and later chairman of the board of studies in human anatomy, but kept in touch with clinical matters as a university member of Hampstead Health Authority and as vice dean of the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine. Prominent in his support of the Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland, he was a council member for some 20 years, programme secretary from 1975 to 1977, treasurer for 10 years and was honoured by his colleagues when elected president for two years from 1990. During this last post he and his wife represented the Anatomical Society at the first joint meeting of the British and American Associations of Clinical Anatomists held in Norwich. He was also a member of the Zoological Society of London, the International Society of Developmental Biologists and of the British Society for Developmental Biology.

Shortly after retirement John suffered a spinal thrombosis, from which his mobility deteriorated, eventually robbing him of his passion for gardening and his main source of consistent exercise. Sonia's health, though poor, was optimally managed by many consultants, aided and abetted by John's meticulous medical record keeping of her conditions and test results, which enabled her to remain ambulant and to be the designated driver until the last three years of her life.

John's health suddenly deteriorated in May 2010 with acute renal failure secondary to a lymphoma. For this he was investigated and treated at King's College Hospital by one of his old students. His great faith defeated the enormous odds against his ever returning to his house at Sevenoaks and to his beloved Sonia.

Though bedbound, during his last years he was able to nursed at home, awakening every morning to the sight of his beloved garden, which he had designed himself, with its changing pattern of colours.

Predeceased by Sonia, John Harris died on 21 June 2013, aged 87. He was survived by his two sons, Richard, a chartered surveyor, and David, a dermatologist, their wives and two grandchildren, James and Jennie.

N Alan Green

Sources used to compile this entry: [David Harris and Richard Harris].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England