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Biographical entry Harman, John Bishop (1907 - 1994)

MRCS and FRCS 1932; MA Cambridge 1933; BChir 1932; FRCS 1942.

10 August 1907
13 November 1994


John Bishop Harman came from an extraordinary family of doctors, writers and politicians. His mother, Katherine Chamberlain, was the niece of Joseph Chamberlain, and married a distinguished ophthalmological surgeon, Nathaniel Bishop Harman. She herself qualified as a doctor at a time when there were only around 300 women on the medical register - something which gave her son very progressive views on the subject of women's education and of the need for their financial independence. John had two brothers and two sisters, one of whom, Kitty, married Donald McLachlan, the first editor of the Sunday TelegraphI.

John was born on 10 August 1907 at 108 Harley Street, the house where he practised and lived until his death. His early years have been described by his other sister Elizabeth Longford, the wife of Lord Longford, in The Pebbled Shore; in the index two early entries about John - 'speculations on the facts of life' and 'obstinate realism' - show a temperament in childhood that basically remained unchanged. Thus John was born into a medical and literary family, but with a strain of independence and rebelliousness of thought that served as an astringent element in his make-up throughout his career.

Educated at Oundle and St John's College, Cambridge, he entered St Thomas's Hospital Medical School in 1929, qualifying in 1932. Characteristically he took the Royal College of Surgeons examinations at the same time, becoming FRCS that year, an intellectual feat of outstanding merit. However, he was to become a physician rather than a surgeon, and held a series of junior posts at St Thomas's, culminating in resident assistant physician, and was elected to the consultant staff in 1938. He remained there for the rest of his working life. Having been trained before scientific medicine became the norm, and with his career interrupted by service with the RAMC during the war, Harman missed out on the investigative revolution. After the war he returned to S Thomas's and became a teaching hospital physician, being also appointed to the staff of the Royal Marsden Hospital in 1947 where he developed an interest in cancer and leukaemia. He was always very much a generalist, seeing himself as a guide for the patient through specialist opinions.

St Thomas's was the centre of his professional life and he served it well on many committees, some of which he chaired, even after his retirement at 65. He became a popular teacher, a trim upright figure in a bowler hat, snuff box always at the ready (old patients were often given a pinch and many a houseman was convulsed on ward rounds by accepting an injudiciously large helping). Generations of students were entranced by his wit and spark, and colleagues were also beguiled, even if his independent line could make him appear provocative at times. This outspokenness denied him the highest offices which his intellect deserved (it was said that if he had entered the law he would have ended up on the woolsack). He was always interested in the law and achieved national fame by appearing as a witness for the defence on behalf of Dr John Bodkin Adams in the notorious murder trial in 1957. This was a very hotly disputed event, the media of the day having decided beforehand that the man was guilty. Harman, with typical clear mindedness and independence of thought, spoke out eloquently for the defendant, who was subsequently acquitted. Harman's evidence was highly commended by Lord Devlin in his book on the trial, Easing the passing (1985). Harman's legalistic mind was put to good use on the Medical Defence Union, of which he was president from 1976 to 1981. He was a great supporter of the Royal College of Physicians, of which he was second Vice-President from 1981 to 1982.

He was not a man to be prejudiced in any way that might prevent him from learning from others. For instance, in 1959 he went behind the Iron Curtain and visited the Soviet Union (he was a Conservative himself) to view at first hand their many impressive achievements in medicine, long before many of his colleagues would have contemplated such a trip. He also visited Hong Kong, Malaysia, South Africa and Australia.

His interests were wide. He edited both the National Formulary and, before that, St Thomas's Hospital formulary. In a conscious echo of his great uncle, Joseph Chamberlain, he grew orchids in a conservatory on the roof at Harley Street, and gardened very knowledgeably and with scientific curiosity. He was fascinated by the history of medicine and the development of ideas. Not surprisingly, he was a superb chairman and after-dinner speaker. During a long life he kept active and regularly chaired the postgraduate meetings at St Thomas's.

Harman was a man of immense courage. Though constantly in the hands of surgeons in later years, he always remained in high spirits so that few knew of his illnesses. The last of these, dissection of the aorta, he diagnosed correctly, recovered, and remained active until the end. He died at the wheel of his car outside St Thomas's Hospital.

He married Anna, née Spicer, in 1946. She was a solicitor to whom he was introduced by the Longfords at Oxford in 1945. Their four daughters, Janet, Sarah, Harriet and Virginia, all became solicitors, and Harriet is a former Labour front bencher. When he died on 13 November 1994 he was survived by his wife, daughters, and ten grandchildren.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times 17 November 1994; Daily Telegraph 6 December 1994, both with portraits].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England