Lives of the fellows

Harry Angelman

b.13 Aug 1915 d.8 Aug 1996
MB ChB Liverp(1938) DCH(1940) MRCP(1947) MD(1948) FRCP(1971)

Harry Angelman was a paediatrician who named and identified the congenital condition known as ‘Angelman syndrome’. He was born in Birkenhead, the fifth of six children of Samuel and Elizabeth Angelman. His multi-lingual father put great emphasis on studying. Harry was educated at the Birkenhead Institute and at Liverpool University, qualifying in 1938. Poor health in children, endemic in industrial towns of the 1930s, made an indelible impression on Harry. He decided to specialize in paediatrics, gained his diploma in child health and took up a post at Booth Hall Children’s Hospital, Manchester. Harry then went to Queen Mary’s Children’s Hospital, Carshalton, where hundreds of children, many suffering from tuberculosis or rheumatic heart disease, were housed in bungalows. More children came from London as the blitz intensified. The hospital was bombed several times, but they never lost a child.

Harry volunteered for the Royal Army Medical Corps and was attached to military hospitals in England before joining a convoy bound for the Far East. When the convoy put into South Africa they learned Singapore had fallen to the Japanese and they were diverted to India. In addition to his other duties, Harry looked after the medical needs of the Italian prisoners of war at Quetta and was fascinated by the Italian language.

After demobilization his first appointment was in adult medicine at St Mary Abbott’s Hospital, London. Harry then went on to work as a senior registrar to the Royal Liverpool Children’s Hospital.

In 1950 he was appointed consultant paediatrician to the Warrington Group of Hospitals. Here he raised the standard of the paediatric ward from a few cots with an open fire, until it was featured in a national nursing magazine. The hospital served a catchment area of a quarter of a million people and Harry, single-handed, elected to work as a full time NHS paediatrician. In spite of a full schedule he wrote several papers on obstruction of the inferior vena cava, tuberculous mediastinal lymph nodes, and coloboma with multiple congenital abnormalities.

It was at Warrington that the story of Angelman syndrome began and it is best told in Harry’s own words, written in 1991: "It was purely by chance that nearly thirty years ago three handicapped children were admitted at various times to my children’s ward. They had a variety of disabilities and, although at first sight they seemed to be suffering from different conditions, I felt that there was a common cause for their illness. The diagnosis was purely a clinical one because in spite of technical investigations which today are more refined, I was unable to establish scientific proof that the three children all had the same handicap. In view of this, I hesitated to write about them in the medical journals. However, when on holiday in Italy, I happened to see an oil painting in the Castelvecchio museum in Verona called 'A boy with a puppet’. The boy’s laughing face and the fact that my patients exhibited jerky movements gave me the idea of writing an article about the three children with the title of ‘puppet children’. It was not a name that pleased all parents but it served as a means of combining the three little patients into a single group. Later the name was changed to Angelman syndrome. This article was published in 1965 (Develop. Med. Child. Neurol., 7:681-688) and, after some initial interest, lay almost forgotten until the early eighties. In fact many doctors denied that such a condition existed. In the past ten years American and English doctors have placed the syndrome on a firm footing with the ability to establish the diagnosis beyond doubt."

In 1986 the Angelman Syndrome Support Group was formed in Waterlooville, Hampshire, to offer a nationwide network of support for affected families. The Americans established the Angelman Syndrome Foundation and Angelman Syndrome Associations now function in Canada, Australia, Mexico, New Zealand, Holland, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Spain, Italy and Switzerland.

In 1964 Harry married Audrey, a lecturer, pianist and writer, with whom he shared many interests - including classical music, walking and sailing. In what little spare time he had, Harry pursued his hobbies of woodwork, metalwork and photography. He studied Italian at evening classes and at summer schools in Milan and Genoa. He obtained his fellowship of the Institute of Linguists and specialized in medical translation.

Harry took early retirement in 1976 and he and Audrey went to live in Lee-on-the-Solent. Unable to retire completely, he enjoyed doing locums. Harry embarked upon translating books from Italian into English. He elegantly and meticulously translated comprehensive works on gynaecological surgery, surgery of the neck, aesthetic rhinoplasty, multiple neuro-endocrine tumours and dysmorphic diseases of the skeleton for the publisher Piccin of Padua.

Harry died from a malignant tumour in Gosport War Memorial Hospital, Portsmouth. The last letter Harry received was a gracious appreciation of his work from President Clinton who congratulated him on his "remarkable accomplishments".

Robert Todd

Audrey Angelman

(Volume X, page 9)

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