Lives of the fellows

Roger Richard Martin Harman

b.16 April 1927 d.25 October 1993
MB BS Lond(1950) MRCP(1952) FRCP(1972)

Roger Harman had a special interest in tropical dermatology and his erudition in this field was unrivalled. He was born in Sussex, educated at Lancing College and qualified in medicine at St Thomas’ Hospital. After various training posts, mainly at St John’s Hospital, London, and a two-year spell in the Army, he was appointed as consultant dermatologist at Bristol Royal Infirmary in 1963, with additional sessions at Southmead Hospital and Weston-super-Mare. In due course he also built up a thriving private practice, though even his private patients would occasionally have to wait for a month or so until his return from a trip to Africa. He had probably worked in as many different underdeveloped countries as any other dermatologist in the world, which had given him great expertise. He had been visiting professor at Kumassi, Ghana; lecturer in Ibadan, Nigeria; associate professor in Shiraz, Iran; and visiting professor in King Abdul University, Jedda, in addition to numerous lecture tours and attendance at scientific meetings in most tropical countries.

His first love was always Africa, to which he returned whenever he had the opportunity, and he visited Kumassi on many occasions despite the fact that life there was relatively hard compared with UK standards. Food was sometimes in short supply, and after his morning clinic he had to bicycle several miles, in the midday African heat, from the hospital to the medical school lecture theatre. He took such privations in his stride and would return to Bristol refreshed and invigorated by the cheerful optimism with which the African people struggled to overcome their problems. His colleagues in Bristol enjoyed these visits vicariously as he would return with wonderful clinical pictures and tales of his adventures, such as his attempt to climb Kilimanjaro - when teaching in Tanzania - which was frustrated at 16,000ft by incipient pulmonary oedema caused by altitude sickness. Quite unperturbed, he breezed back to Bristol a few weeks later looking fitter and younger than ever.

In later years his common sense and wide experience were put to good use when he undertook, in an apparently effortless way, most of the national posts in British dermatology. He was chairman of the specialist advisory committee on dermatology training, chairman of the dermatology committee of the RCP, and president of the Dowling Club. The culmination of his professional career came in 1989 when he was elected president of the British Association of Dermatologists. At the annual meeting he characteristically introduced a number of non-dermatological innovations, including an arts and crafts exhibition with accompanying musical entertainment provided by dermatologists. He was co-author, with W H Jopling and J Ebling, of the chapters on leprosy and parasitic worms in the first four editions of the Rook/Wilkinson/Ebling Textbook of dermatology. He was also invited by Canizares of New York to co-edit the second edition of his Clinical dermatology, which was published in 1992 and now regarded as the reference text for tropical dermatology.

Although Roger was always a most courteous and affable person, hospital managers found him a tough negotiator who strove to maintain standards against what he saw as a relentless deterioration in the hospital service caused by high-level political decisions imposed in the last 10-15 years. He was never content with a Quixotic tilting against the windmills of Whitehall; his criticisms were down to earth and practical and he would forcibly point out remediable deficiencies, and the appropriate manager would speedily receive a rather crisp letter.

Despite his frequent travels, Roger had a very happy family life with his wife Pamela, née Skoyles, whom he married in 1957. They had two sons and lived in a lovely Georgian house in the Somerset village of Chew Magna, where he played a prominent role in the local community. His wife was also a doctor and many of the locals knew him best as their GP’s husband or for his involvement in church affairs; others knew him for his roles in the productions of the local amateur dramatic society. In one production he actually played the role of God, a difficult part for someone who look as youthful as Roger but one which he carried off with his usual charisma. He also contributed much to the musical life of the village and many of his friends have fond memories of dining out on warm evenings in the idyllic setting of the Harmans’ large garden being serenaded by the Chew Magna Wind Group, with Roger in his white dinner jacket accompanying them on the keyboard. He was also a keen dinghy sailor and regularly won the sailing trophy at the annual BAD meeting.

Perhaps the role that gave him greatest delight was that of local farmer. He was often to be seen at weekends dressed in his old boiler suit, driving a tractor along the village lanes or feeding his cattle, or mending his fences. Overseas doctors would arrive at regular intervals at Bristol Royal Infirmary to see Roger Harman, and if they arrived unannounced at the weekend they were directed to Chew Magna where they would eventually track him down on top of a hayrick, with straw in his hair and a pitchfork in his hand, looking totally unlike a world expert on tropical dermatology.

Yet, although Roger enjoyed a good life, he always devoted considerable effort to helping those in less fortunate circumstances. He and Pamela would sometimes spend Christmas Day in London distributing food and gifts to the homeless, and they lectured young people on the dangers of drug abuse. Roger was an expert on African drum rhythms and he would take his drums and demonstrate the rhythms in Somerset schools as part of his efforts to raise money for African charities. In one particular African village, dear to his heart, the young men could not obtain wives because it was a three-mile walk to the nearest water hole; Roger’s drums were instrumental in getting the money to provide a well for them. He also helped to set up the postgraduate training school at Moshe for African dermatologists.

Roger might be regarded as a role model of the quintessential Englishman. A calm, courteous, quietly humorous and unassuming man, but a man of substantial achievement and many hidden talents.

J L Burton

[Brit.med.J., 1994,308,337; The Times, 13 Dec 1993]

(Volume IX, page 225)

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