Lives of the fellows

John Bishop Harman

b.10 August 1907 d.13 November 1994
BA Cantab(1929) BChir(1932) FRCS(1932) MRCS LRCP(1932) MA(1933) MRCP(1934) MD(1937) FRCP(1942)

John Harman was the personification of the physicians who, until four to five decades ago, predominated in the leading centres of medical practice and teaching in Britain. Their main characteristics were intellectual distinction, clinical skill and wisdom, personal integrity and steadfast devotion to their school and hospital.

He was born at 108 Harley Street and practised and lived there until his death. His father, Nathaniel, trained for the Baptist ministry with the intention of becoming a medical missionary. But he took a double first at Cambridge and ultimately settled into a career as an ophthalmic consultant in Harley Street. He shed his Baptist faith but not his puritanism after marrying Katherine Chamberlain, a niece of Joseph Chamberlain. Katherine displayed a powerful spirit for her time by qualifying as a doctor but chose husband and family in place of a career in medicine. His genetic endowment, familial origins and the rich intellectual environment created by the many writers, politicians and doctors within the extended family in which he was reared shed some insight into the origins of John’s versatile and distinctive personality.

John was educated at Oundle where he was a contemporary of Sir Cyril Clarke. Cyril mentions that in the course of their initial work for what was then called the lower certificate he, Cyril, was nearly always top of the form while John was at the bottom. The tables were turned when they began to work for the school and higher certificates. Cyril also points out that John Harman was left wing at school. "But later he became a staunch conservative, although he was nearly always antiestablishment simply for the fun of it."

After St John’s College, Cambridge, where he read natural sciences, John Harman went on to St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School. He graduated in 1932. Soon afterwards he became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons by examination, a qualification obtainable at that time without any practical experience. Some years later he also became a member of the Royal College of Physicians. At St Thomas’s, after serving as resident assistant physician, he was elected to the consultant staff in 1938.

From an early stage in his career his incisive intellect made a profound impression on his colleagues and students. The claim made by some observers that he won more respect than affection conveys an inaccurate picture of his personality. An unfailing integrity led him to eschew dramatization and captivation by charisma. These were the days when a probable clinical diagnosis could be established with the aid of painstaking history and examination, knowledge and insight, rather than heavy reliance on a thick pile of laboratory reports. His students were advanced to clinical maturity through his powers of observation and lucid and cogent reasoning. There was strong competition for positions on his firm and generations of students were inspired by his intellect, clinical ability and wit.

He made a special study of clinical pharmacology and edited the St Thomas’s Pharmacopoeia which provided a valuable vade mecum for his trainees. He was very much the general physician and would not hesitate to seek a specialist consultation when out of his depth.

His lucid and vigorous intellect enabled him to serve with distinction on many committees, continuing in the chair in some cases after his retirement in 1972. He served as vice-president of the College in the early 1980s and was an active member of a number of its committees. Although generally tempered by a civilized restraint his criticisms and comments on committees could be provocative. His independent outlook and candour probably denied him the higher positions of the profession which his intellectual stature should have won him.

His lifelong interest in the law found an outlet in his presidency of the Medical Defence Union after his retirement. Earlier he had achieved a certain national celebrity when he appeared for the defence on behalf of John Bodkin Adams in the notorious murder trial in 1957. Adams was accused of hastening the death of a number of elderly female patients from whose wills he was to derive considerable financial benefit. The media had prematurely declared Adams guilty. But Harman, using lucid, independent, eloquent, reasoning for the defence was able to help secure his acquittal.

His thirty five years of service at St Thomas’s were interrupted only by service in the RAMC during the Second World War. He was mentioned in despatches and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. After the war his older sister, Elizabeth, wife of Lord Longford, introduced him to a young lawyer, Anna Spicer. They married in 1946 and had four daughters. John’s own conservatism remained throughout his life in a stable balance with that of his wife, Anna, a gifted barrister who was a liberal. His four daughters all became solicitors and Harriet became a front bench minister for the Labour Party. All four daughters engaged in causes that sought to relieve the plight of the underprivileged. Among John’s nieces and great-nieces are the writers Antonia Fraser, Rachel Billington, and the poet Judith Kazantzis.

At no stage of his life was John’s courage and human stature more clearly evident than during the last few years of his life when he was in the care of surgeons over long periods. There was no sign of despondency or despair in John. Slowly he grew more frail but he continued in action until the end. Despite the decline in vigour and intensity in the last few months he remained his undiminished self. His involvement with St Thomas’s was sustained until his life ended suddenly at the wheel of his car while he was on his way to the hospital.

Sir Martin Roth

[The Independent, 26 Nov 1994; The Daily Telegraph, 6 Dec 1994; The Times, 17 Nov 1994]

(Volume X, page 197)

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