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Biographical entry Harkness, Robert Coltart (1887 - 1976)

MRCS and FRCS 1911; MB ChB Edinburgh 1909; LRCP 1911.

28 February 1887
11 July 1976
Cobham, Surrey
Medical Officer


Robert Coltart Harkness was born in Dumfries on 28 February 1887. He was educated at Laurieknone School and Dumfries Academy where he was dux on the modern side, sports champion and captain of soccer. He proceeded to Edinburgh University where he was Ettles Scholar, Buchanan Scholar and Houldsworth Scholar and graduated MB ChB in 1909 with first class honours. He did several house jobs including house surgeon at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, Manchester Royal Infirmary and Wolverhampton General Hospital. He joined the Army in 1914 and served throughout the war in France and at Catterick Camp attained the rank of Major. He obtained the MRCS and LRCP in 1910, and passed the Final FRCS in London in 1910, having to wait until 28 February 1911, his 25th birthday, before he was admitted. In 1920 he was appointed medical superintendent at St Olave's Hospital, Bermondsey, a position he held until 1931. From 1920 to 1948 he also served on the staff of the London County Council's hospitals administration. From the inception of the NHS in 1948 until 1952 he was liaison officer between the London based regional hospital boards and the residual London County Council Service.

He was outstanding among the able administrators who fashioned the remarkably successful medical services of the London County Council. In the early 'thirties, when the Council took over the Poor Law hospitals of the various London boroughs, the formidable task of moulding a mass of very uneven institutions into a coherent service fell to Harkness, who had been put in charge of the general hospitals of the Council. It required all the vision, firmness, and persuasion of a gifted administrator to achieve the unified service that Harkness created within a few years. This organisation greatly facilitated the task of the Emergency Medical Service during 1939-45, but it never grew to maturity, for the medical services of the local authorities including those of the LCC, were absorbed into the National Health Service in 1946-8, and by then Harkness was approaching retiring age. For some years after his retirement the South-West Metropolitan Hospital Board drew on Harkness's vast experience. Inevitably the reorganisation of the hospital services of London created many anomalies, not always solved adequately or even sensibly. To these problems Harkness brought not only experience but wisdom. At the Royal Eye Hospital, one of the hospitals affected, Harkness, who had become its chairman, contributed years of selfless service, but failing health compelled him to relinquish a difficult task. His hobbies were golf, tennis, badminton, bowls and gardening. For his integrity, his quiet enthusiasm, his reticence and shyness he will be remembered. In 1924 he married Sheila McWilliam and had two daughters. He died at Dalveen, Cobham, Surrey, on 11 July 1976, aged 90 years.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times 13 July 1976; Brit med J 1976, 2, 373, 484].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England